NSF grant funds program to increase diversity in physics and astronomy

Cal-Bridge program receives $5 million grant for Ph.D. pathways at 24 campuses

Cal-Bridge Scholars
A new cohort of Cal-Bridge scholars has been recruited in year 2 of the Cal-Bridge North program.

UC Santa Cruz is part of a consortium of nine UC and 15 California State University campuses collectively awarded a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to dramatically increase diversity in physics and astronomy through the Cal-Bridge program.

Launched four years ago in Southern California, the Cal-Bridge program creates a pathway for students from multiple CSU campuses to Ph.D. programs in physics and astronomy at UC campuses across California. Last year, the program began a small-scale expansion into Northern California, with UC Santa Cruz and San Jose State University leading the effort.

"This new grant allows us to ramp up the program substantially," said Bruce Schumm, professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, who leads the the Northern California Cal-Bridge program along with principal investigator Aaron Romanowsky, an astronomer at San Jose State University.

"This program knits together the three branches of the California higher education system by identifying promising physics and astronomy students within the broadly diverse CSU and community college systems and connecting them to a strong mentoring and professional development network," Schumm said.

Currently, students from underrepresented minority groups represent 30 percent of the U.S. population but less than 4 percent of physics and astronomy Ph.D.s awarded nationwide. The Cal-Bridge program aims to have a national impact on the number of students from underrepresented groups graduating with a physics degree and matriculating to Ph.D. programs in physics or astronomy.

The new grant allows Cal-Bridge to expand from about a dozen scholars per year to as many as 50 statewide. The national average of underrepresented minorities earning a Ph.D. in these fields is about 80 per year. Cal-Bridge is led by principal investigator and program director Alexander Rudolph, a Cal Poly Pomona professor of physics and astronomy.

Cal-Bridge scholars are recruited from the 15 CSU campuses and more than 30 community colleges in the Cal-Bridge network, with the help of local faculty and staff liaisons at each campus. Once selected, Cal-Bridge Scholars receive substantial financial support, intensive mentoring, professional development workshops, and exposure to a wide variety of research opportunities.

"We're trying to identify students who are 'diamonds in the rough,' who show potential but might not stand out by the usual academic indicators," Schumm said. "The goal is to get these students into graduate school and ultimately to bring more diversity into the ranks of physicists and astronomers in California and nationwide. Our new cohort was just here for a program on campus, and they are a diverse group of very impressive students."

Every student has two faculty mentors, one at a CSU and one at a UC. A steering committee of CSU and UC faculty convenes several times a year to discuss each student in depth, providing important group feedback into the mentoring process.

"We lay out the path for them to get into graduate school, offer workshops for professional development and computing skills, and provide connections to summer research internships," Schumm said.

The program has been highly successful in its first five years in developing a pipeline of highly diverse, qualified scholars, many of whom have already successfully matriculated to a Ph.D. program in physics or astronomy. The program just selected its fifth cohort of 27 scholars from 10 different CSU campuses across the state, bringing the total number of scholars to 61 in five cohorts, including 35 Latinos, seven African-Americans, and 27 women (16 of the 27 women are from underrepresented minority groups). In the last three years, 19 of 21 Cal-Bridge Scholars who have earned their bachelor’s degree in physics have begun or will attend Ph.D. programs in physics or astronomy at top programs nationally, including UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, Harvard University, Northwestern University, the University of Maryland, Michigan State University, and Penn State University.

Schumm said he hopes the Cal-Bridge program can serve as a model for programs to address diversity issues in other STEM fields and in other states.