When Alexa Dobbs faced periodic challenges during her first year of graduate studies at Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, she was grateful for plenty of support from faculty and fellow students through the GT EQUAL (Graduate Training for Equality in Underrepresented Academic Leadership) program.
“I’ve really appreciated the support system,” says Dobbs, now a second-year grad student. She received tutoring when she needed it as well as professional development support from professors and the mentorship of another graduate student who was paired with her. “They’ve been really helpful in navigating issues.”
The GT-EQUAL Program is one of two sites at Georgia Tech for the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Bridge Program, which aims to increase the number of PhDs in the chemical sciences that are awarded to students from underrepresented groups. GT-EQUAL is based in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and is beginning its second year, while a second Bridge site in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry is starting this year.
Professor Carson Meredith, who is the GT-EQUAL project leader, says, “The Bridge program aims to enhance opportunities for under-represented students and contribute to a more equitable society. We accomplish this with a structure adapted to individual students’ needs and engineered to ensure success.”
The GT-EQUAL Bridge Site enrolls two Bridge Fellows annually who will earn a thesis MS in chemical engineering while receiving full funding, extensive support, mentoring, and training to prepare for success in a PhD program. It also includes additional Bridge participants who engage in many of the activities and support structure.
First Cohort of Fellows
Dobbs, who aims to go into industry after completing her PhD, was one of the two Fellows in the inaugural year (2019-2020) of GT-EQUAL. She first heard about the Bridge Program through a professor who mentored during her undergraduate studies as a chemistry major at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.
“She knew I was Native American. We’re from the same tribe and had been in touch throughout the years. In my senior year, she urged me to explore bridge programs as she believed it would be a good fit for me.”
Dobbs, who had worked as an undergraduate researcher at Fort Lewis, now helps develop high efficiency electrolyzers in Professor Paul Kohl’s Lab at Georgia Tech. She’s also involved with the Georgia Tech graduate student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.
She says she’s enjoyed the adjustment to living in Atlanta. “Durango is a small mining town, and this is the capital city of Georgia, so it’s definitely different. Atlanta is very beautiful, and the weather is really nice.
Thomas Pho, the other Bridge Fellow in the first year of GT-EQUAL, first learned about the program in 2019 during an ACS conference. But it turned out to be at nearly the last second – applications were due that same day.
Fortunately, he’d already applied (successfully) to be a Taiwan National International Fellow at Tunghai University in summer 2019, so he didn’t have to start from scratch in quickly putting together his GT-EQUAL application.
Pho became interested in pursuing graduate school in chemical engineering as an Undergraduate Research Fellow at Augsburg University in the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology. He co-authored two published papers during his chemistry studies there.
At Georgia Tech, he works in Associate Professor Julie Champion’s lab on the drug delivery of intranasal influenza vaccines.
Pho, who plans to go into industry after earning his PhD, says he appreciates GT-EQUAL’s focus on not only ethnic diversity, but also socio-diversity. His parents didn’t complete their college education, but he notes that “a lot of people in grad school have parents who earned graduate degrees. A lot of people in grad school have higher social status.”
He adds that socio-diversity “is very important if we want the populations of graduate schools to be more diverse. Grad school can provide a lot of social mobility.”
Second Cohort of Fellows
Fidel Amezcua, who is starting as a Bridge Fellow in fall 2020, says he is grateful that GT-EQUAL admitted him as a non-traditional student.
Now 35 years old, Amezcua dropped out of high school and obtained his GED four years later. He attended Cuyumaca, a community college in San Diego, California, on and off for years while working jobs in construction, maintenance, fast food, and retail.
Looking to start over, he moved to Chicago and decided to apply to Chicago State University, which his brother had attended as a veteran. With scholarship support, Amezcua completed his BS in chemistry there in 2018.
He came to Atlanta in fall 2019 to work as an engineering laboratory technician for KEMRON Environmental Services. The move here was partly motivated by his desire to be close to Georgia Tech and other universities where he could potentially pursue graduate studies in order to advance his career in industry.
He’d first visited Georgia Tech as part of the Institute’s FOCUS Program, which is designed to attract talented students from underrepresented groups to pursue graduate degrees here.
When he later learned about the Bridge Program through an ACS e-mail he received as a society member, he knew there was a possibility he could join Tech through the GT-EQUAL Bridge site.
Sydney Wimberley, the other new Bridge Fellow starting in fall 2020, first learned about GT-EQUAL during a visit to Atlanta for Georgia Tech’s FOCUS Program.
“I’d been thinking about grad school for a long time, and a lot of my peers and professors were pushing me to apply,” says Syd Wimberly, who graduated with a BS in chemical engineering from the University of Connecticut in May 2020. “However, I was not intending to apply this year.”
She’d first planned to live in Spain for a year and gain more research experience as an intern and also finish a dual degree in Spanish. But the onset of the coronavirus epidemic scotched those plans due to various uncertainties.
Now Wimberley plans to her complete her PhD, then pursue a career in industry.
Students like Wimberley need to be better represented in graduate programs across the country, according to Bridge Program leaders.
In 2016, about 12 percent of 10,000 BS degrees in chemical engineering went to students from underrepresented groups (Black, Hispanic, and Native American). Only a fraction of these students entered a PhD program in the chemical sciences – far fewer than their representation relative to other groups.
According to statistics from the National Science Foundation, 5 percent of doctoral degrees in chemical engineering awarded in 2018 (44 out of 981) went to students from underrepresented groups, while the population in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering is 14% (29 out of 205 students).
"As a public institution located in Atlanta, we are a leader in educating students from underrepresented groups,” says Martha Grover, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering who is the Bridge project co-leader as well as associate chair of graduate studies.
“However, the best is still not very good. The numbers are too small and not representative of the population of Atlanta or Georgia. We are committed to doing more. The infrastructure and financial support provided by ACS Bridge are catalyzing this new program,” she says.
Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering was one of the first two institutions nationwide selected in 2019 to become the inaugural sites for the ACS Bridge Program.
The Bridge Program came about after ACS joined the Inclusive Graduate Education Network (IGEN), a coalition of five scientific societies formed to bolster the number of underrepresented students in the physical sciences, in 2018. This year, the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Tech has also become a bridge site. The ACS Bridge Program supports this national effort by assisting chemical science departments in creating a “bridge” for these students to earn their doctorates in chemistry or chemical engineering.