What comes naturally to Dr. Karen Molek, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at UWF, is exactly what correlates with student persistence and graduation: taking time to mentor and open doors for motivated students. After only four years at UWF, Molek landed a prestigious grant from the National Institutes of Health MARC U-STAR program with the collaboration of Dr. Michael Huggins, Interim Dean for the College or Arts and Sciences and former Chair of the Chemistry Department.
MARC U-STAR awards provide support for undergraduate students who are underrepresented (UR) in the biomedical and behavioral sciences to improve their preparation for high-caliber graduate training at the Ph.D. level. The program also supports efforts to strengthen the science course curricula, pedagogical skills of faculty and biomedical research training at institutions with significant enrollments of students from underrepresented groups.
Dr. Molek and Dr. Michael Huggins, as well as faculty members in the Chemistry Department began a pilot program in 2011: Chemistry Scholars. The program has successfully increased the percentage of graduating UR Chemistry students from 5% during 2008-2012 to 32% during 2012-2014. Additionally, 2% of the graduates during 2008-2012 were UR and pursuing PhD degrees as compared to 17% during 2012-2014. UWF’s Chem Scholar Program is modeled after the successful Meyerhoff Scholars Program which addresses the need for women and minorities in science, engineering and technology careers and academia. The NY Times addressed this issue in an article in December 2013:
Women make up nearly half the work force but have just 26 percent of science, technology, engineering or math jobs, according to the Census Bureau. Blacks make up 11 percent of the workforce but just 6 percent of such jobs and Hispanics make up nearly 15 percent of the work force but hold 7 percent of those positions. There is no question that women and minorities have made progress in science and math in the last several decades, but their gains have been slow and halting. And in the fast-growing field of computer science, women’s representation has actually declined in the last 20 years, while minorities have made relatively small gains.
The UWF MARC U-STAR Scholars program will expand the successful Chem Scholars model into the biology and physics departments. The long-term goal is to expand Chem Scholars into STEM Scholars, which will institute change at UWF in recruiting, retaining, and mentoring students through graduation and matriculation into graduate programs.
Students must meet the following qualifications: full-time chemistry, biology, or physics students with a cumulative 3.2 GPA and pursuing a graduate STEM degree. The program will provide: 1) academic and social integration, 2) knowledge and skill development, 3) support and motivation, and 4) monitoring and advising.
Under the leadership of Dr. Michael T. Huggins, co-PI, the Chemistry Department has undergone a transformation in the past five years to include an increase in majors and a larger percentage of graduates attending PhD programs in Chemistry. This transformation was a 100% grassroots effort with a small team of six tenured/tenure track faculty and three lecturers and numerous dedicated donors, many of whom were alumni. The Chemistry Department has led the UWF inclusiveness initiative by recruiting and retaining all students in Chemistry with an emphasis on UR students through the establishment of the Chemistry Scholars Program.
Dr. Molek is an active member of the UWF STEM Steering Committee, an interdisciplinary group of STEM faculty who plan, sponsor events, provide professional development, and conduct research to advance STEM teaching and learning on campus. UWF was also the recipient of a National Science Foundation ADVANCE award. The goal of the UWF ADVANCE program is to develop systemic approaches to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic STEM careers, thereby contributing to the development of a more diverse science and engineering workforce. A five-year award in its third year, UWF’s ADVANCE program focuses on advancing women STEM faculty to advance their research, teaching and mentoring underrepresented students in STEM. The program brings nationally recognized leaders to campus to address challenges higher education institutions face in producing the STEM workforce to meet the increasing demands for qualified STEM graduates.
UWF is the first regional, public university to receive a MARC USTAR Award.