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Fisk and Vanderbilt team up to build the Bridge Program, a better — and more diverse — science Ph.D. track

True Grit

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"If you're looking for the next 100 mph fastballer, you don't just hand out fliers," Vanderbilt physics and astronomy professor Keivan Stassun tells the Scene. "You go to the places where the talent is, even if that talent is rough around the edges." But Stassun isn't looking for hurlers. As founder of the Bridge Program, a unique partnership between Fisk and Vanderbilt, he's been traveling to historically black colleges and universities and other schools around the country looking for minority students who have what it takes to earn advanced science degrees. But if he was recruiting fireballers, he'd likely be a major league scout by now.

"Nine years, we've had 68 students come in," Stassun says, "and of those 68, 61 have been ethnic minority students." All are U.S. citizens, and 55 percent are women. And of these students — African-American, Native American, Hispanic, native Hawaiian — so far seven have earned Ph.Ds., and all had offers in hand six months before graduation for permanent jobs in national labs, academic research or industry.

One key to success has been looking beyond GPA and GRE scores. "Psych research tells us actually those metrics do a terrible job of predicting who's going to succeed," Stassun says. But they do a good job of creating a graduate student body that is predominantly male and predominantly white or Asian. Looking only at science or engineering majors in college whose grades were A-minus or better, Stassun and his colleagues found that white and Asian students' GRE scores on average were about 200 points higher than African-American students, with an almost 100-point difference between men and women.

The Bridge Program looks at GRE scores, but places more emphasis on what Stassun calls "grit, performance character ... basically a person's tenacity, a person's bearing toward achieving their goals." As a result, the Bridge Program boasts a 92 percent retention rate — compared to around 50 percent for graduate programs generally.

"We have become a kind of laboratory for how to do Ph.D. training better than we've done it before," Stassun says. "Not just in terms of diversity and minorities, but better — period."

And while Stassun believes similar results can be produced elsewhere — Columbia University, the University of Michigan and MIT are among the schools using the Bridge Program as a model for similar initiatives — he calls the Bridge Program "an example of how Nashville's unique positioning with these universities that have historically been so different can come together to solve this problem."

Location is as vital in real estate as it is in pitching, and Stassun says he sees a kind of kismet in having "a major research university like Vanderbilt almost literally next door to one of the most highly regarded and venerated HBCUs." And now, thanks to the Bridge Program, it's where the talent comes.


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