University of Iowa Honored for Mentoring Minority Students

September 26, 2005

Diversity Day at the 2005 SIAM Annual Meeting also served as something of an MTBI reunion. Shown here are MTBI graduates Sara Del Valle (left), who received a PhD in applied mathematics and computational sciences from the University of Iowa in May and is now a postdoc at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Miriam Nuño, now a postdoc at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Several years ago, convinced that they were missing out on good prospective graduate students, the mathematics faculty at the University of Iowa set out to create a program that would be attractive and supportive to students from underrepresented minority groups. A measure of their success came this spring, when four representatives of the department went to the White House to accept one of this year's 14 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

Describing the Iowa department as "the largest single awarder of math doctorates to minorities in the nation," the award citation points out that the university's "commitment to increasing the numbers of minority graduate students has resulted in a well-crafted recruiting campaign to convince students that the environment is a supportive one." The awards, which are supported and administered by the National Science Foundation, went to nine individuals and five institutions.

Of the current total of 120 graduate students, about 75% are in mathematics and 25% are in the department's interdisciplinary Program in Applied Mathematical and Computational Sciences, says David Manderscheid, who has chaired the department since 2001. Minority students account for 21% of the total, and, reflecting what Man-derscheid calls "an unanticipated change in the department's culture," 44% of the graduate students are women.

Among recent graduates is Sara Del Valle, who received a PhD in May and is now a postdoc at Los Alamos National Laboratory; she wrote her dissertation, "Effects of Behavioral Changes and Mixing Patterns in Mathematical Models for Smallpox Epidemics," under the supervision of two advisers: Herbert Hethcote, former director of the applied and computational mathematics program at Iowa, and Mac Hyman of Los Alamos. In July, during the SIAM Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Del Valle described some aspects of her research in a talk at Diversity Day. Shortly afterward, she took the time to trace the main steps in her mathematical career for SIAM News.

A Life-changing REU
Born in Mexico, Del Valle moved with her family to the U.S. at the age of 16. Having always liked math (unlike anyone else in her family), she finished her last two years of high school in New Jersey and then went on to the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

"Looking around on the Web for an REU" during her senior year at NJIT, she came across the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute. Established by Carlos Castillo-Chavez at Cornell and now a joint project of Arizona State University and Los Alamos, MTBI has been providing summer research opportunities for students, mostly from underrepresented minorities, since 1996. Many students are interested in MTBI (several hundred apply for the 20 places available each summer); for Del Valle, it seemed to offer a way to learn about career opportunities in a supportive environment.

Accepted in the end for two REUs, Del Valle, in what she calls "the best choice of my life," opted for MTBI. In fact, after a good experience working on reaction–diffusion models as part of a four-student team her first summer (2000), she returned, as many participants do, for a second summer.

With both a bachelor's and a master's degree from NJIT, Del Valle knew that she wanted to go on at some point for a PhD. Castillo-Chavez, she recalls, talked her into starting immediately and made the connection with Hethcote at Iowa. She enrolled in the graduate program at Iowa in 2001, with a fellowship from the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program of the U.S. Department of Education; after passing her comprehensive exams, she received a second fellowship, from the Sloan Foundation--under its program for increasing the numbers of underrepresented minorities in mathematics and science. (The mentoring award credited Iowa in part for its successful efforts to secure external grants for its students.)

Del Valle had been at Iowa for a year and a half when Castillo-Chavez was named an Ulam Scholar at Los Alamos; he invited her to continue her work there, setting in motion the collaboration with Hyman and, recently, the happily accepted offer of the Los Alamos postdoctoral fellowship.

Meeting Students "Where They Are"
Manderscheid emphasizes the practical side of the Iowa department's decision to in-crease its efforts with minority students. "We wanted more and better graduate students," he says. Of the forty full-time faculty,
two were African-American and two were Hispanic, he says, and although supportive, they "really weren't the only driving force."

Central to the department's approach was a conscious abandoning of the myth that "there are only so many students out there--we're all chasing the same pool." At Iowa, Manderscheid says, "we're picking up students from schools that don't ordinarily send students to grad school. We're willing to meet the students where they are." This can mean placing students in undergraduate courses if needed, he explains.

Long-time Iowa faculty member Gene Madison, who has chaired the minority recruiting and development committee since its inception about eight years ago, points out that in the earliest years "it was difficult for minority students to establish a community." Today, he says, "students hear about Iowa from their friends and want to apply."

Unlike programs driven by the enthusiasm and talent of a single person, which frequently fade away on the departure of the founder, the Iowa effort has had the support and involvement of the entire faculty and the university administration. Some faculty did resist initially, Manderscheid and Madison recall; wary of abandoning traditional measures for accepting graduate students, they had considered the risk too great. "Work ethic"--one of the main admission criteria the department uses--turns out to find favor with faculty, who enjoy working with students "who love the subject and are trying hard."

Once the faculty had endorsed the goal, they proceeded to build a program around extensive mentoring, both faculty-to-student and peer-to-peer. Each first-year student has both a faculty adviser and a faculty mentor; an advanced graduate student is assigned to each first-year course, not to assist the faculty but to hold discussion sessions and the like.

In addition, advanced graduate students who have already taken and passed the comprehensive exams run a seminar in which they go over the questions from the preceding ten years. The sessions are well attended, by minority and non-minority students alike; their institution was followed by a significant decrease in the failure rate. Manderscheid considers the sessions "helpful in creating a culture of studying together." Del Valle, from the student perspective, recalls them as being "extremely helpful."

Looking to the future, the department plans to use the $10,000 attached to the mentoring award for a conference, tentatively scheduled for next spring, designed to encourage minority students to think of graduate school as a real possibility. The plan is to invite undergraduate minority students--many from institutions the recruiting committee has worked with over the years--to Iowa, where they will meet with graduate students, faculty, and other role models. Meanwhile, as Castillo-Chavez hoped when he nominated Iowa for the mentoring award, the department itself has become a role model for institutions wishing to create similar programs.

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