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New molecular sciences bridge program to support underrepresented students

ASU's School of Molecular Sciences will receive up to $180,000 from the American Chemical Society to establish the program over the next three years

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The entrance to the Bateman Physical Sciences Center B-E / Wexler Hall is pictured on the ASU Tempe campus on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.

The American Chemical Society is bringing a bridge program to the School of Molecular Sciences at ASU to help students transition from their undergraduate degree programs to doctoral-level studies.

The ACS Bridge Program, which is specifically directed toward Black, Latine and Indigenous students, aims to help increase the number of chemical science Ph.D.s awarded to underrepresented students.

ASU will receive up to $180,000 to establish the bridge program over the next three years, according to the guidelines for bridge site proposals. A majority of that funding will go directly to students, as the bridge fellows will have their tuition fully covered and receive a stipend for living expenses, said Ryan Trovitch, an associate professor in the School of Molecular Sciences.

The program is aiming to accept two bridge fellows in August, equipping the students with financial and academic support throughout the program. 

Trovitch said in certain science, technology, engineering and math fields, particularly chemistry, it is common for students to complete their undergraduate degree and immediately apply for a Ph.D. program. The ACS Bridge Program gives students the resources they need to be better prepared for admission into a Ph.D. program, such as research experience they may not have obtained during their undergraduate studies, he said. 

"It gives people a second chance at a career that they are interested in pursuing," Trovitch said. "It offers the opportunity to broaden the diversity of the chemical workforce in general, not just here at ASU."

At ASU, the demographic makeup of the undergraduate student body in molecular sciences closely matches the rest of the University and the state, but that isn't the same with students in master's and Ph.D. programs, said Anne Jones, a professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and soon-to-be vice provost for undergraduate education. 

According to a Fall 2020 ASU report, 26.2% of undergraduates were Hispanic/Latino, 4.3% were Black, 1.2% were Indigenous, 8% were Asian and 46.6% were white. Those numbers are similar to the state of Arizona's, where 31.7% of people are Hispanic/Latino, 5.2% are Black, 5.3% are Indigenous, 3.7% are Asian and 54.1% are white, according to 2019 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

For graduate ASU students, 12.7% were Hispanic/Latino, 3.4% were Black, 1.1% were Indigenous, 5.2% were Asian, and 41.8% were white. 

"We know in lots of academic disciplines that when the collection of people who hold degrees doesn't match the population, certain problems don't get addressed ... And I think that we must expect that as chemistry changes in terms of its demographic outlook, it's also going to improve the research so that the quality of different voices leads to a better product," Jones said. 

READ MORE: ‘Identities matter’: The Polytechnic School’s gender equality equation

Out of the nine bridge sites that ACS has, ASU is one of the only sites in the Southwest, giving it a unique opportunity to serve underrepresented minority students that live in the region, Jones said. 

The students selected for the program will be supported by a team of mentors, and, through the School of Molecular Sciences' master's program, will take courses on certain professional development skills. 

Traditional Ph.D. programs have been centered solely around content mastery and research, Jones said, but earning a Ph.D. requires a range of other skills such as writing papers, developing quantitative models and giving presentations. 

In addition to their six graduate-level courses, thesis and research, students will take a one-credit seminar course, Jones said.

The program is unique with its emphasis on building soft skills as well as the focus on each student's experience, said Ara Austin, managing director of online programs and a clinical assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences.

Faculty in the School of Molecular Sciences will be working closely with the students and monitoring the success of the program in hopes of ensuring it meets the needs of the fellows it accepts, Austin said.

"The impact is that it just simply shows that we care, and that, what we are serious about now is increasing diversity," Austin said. 

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