Department of Chemistry Helps Minority Students Pursue Graduate Studies in STEM

Chemistry students
Chemistry students.

A new partnership between the UC Davis Department of Chemistry and Xavier University in New Orleans will encourage students from underrepresented minority groups to pursue doctoral degrees in chemistry and chemical biology.

Attracting students from underrepresented groups to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduate programs is an important step in attaining a diverse faculty, said Jared Shaw, professor of chemistry at UC Davis.

“We’re passionate about enhancing diversity in the STEM workforce,” said Shaw, who leads the chemistry partnership program. “It’s important to do everything we can at the hiring stage, but the best way to increase diversity is to change the pipeline.”

The loss of underrepresented groups from the STEM career ladder is called the “leaky pipeline.” Although about 30 percent of underrepresented minority (URM) college freshmen express an interest in studying STEM subjects, only nine percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees were awarded to black students between 2000 and 2011, the National Science Foundation reports. Black students are also underrepresented in graduate programs, with enrollment in UC academic doctoral programs at 2.8 percent.

Xavier University awards more undergraduate degrees in the biological and physical sciences to black students than any other university in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Faculty partners at Xavier University are chemistry associate professor Kelly Johanson and chemistry professor Teresa Birdwhistell.

The UC Davis-Xavier University partnership is funded by a three-year, $220,000 grant from the University of California-Historically Black Colleges and Universities (UC-HBCU) Initiative. The initiative is a systemwide effort to boost the number of African Americans in UC graduate programs by establishing connections with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and funding internships that provide research, mentoring and skill-building opportunities.

Shaw plans to recruit Xavier students who are starting their junior or senior year as undergraduates. Students will spend eight weeks on campus in the summer, working alongside chemistry faculty who are leaders in their field and doing research in cutting-edge labs. The students will also participate in workshops on taking the GRE, writing a personal statement and preparing for graduate school.

“It’s not just about being in a lab for 10 weeks. The students will also learn what it takes to succeed in graduate school,” Shaw said.

Since its inaugural year in 2012, more than 230 HBCU scholars have participated in the program across the UC system. A third of those who have participated in the program and completed their undergraduate education have chosen to apply to a UC graduate program.

UC Davis-Xavier Chemistry and Chemical Biology Graduate Admissions Pathways is one of five UC Davis UC-HBCU programs. Other participating programs include Evolution and Ecology, Atmospheric Science, Molecular & Cell Biology, English and the Center for Poverty Research.

For more information, visit

— Becky Oskin, content strategist for the UC Davis College of Letters and Science