The following was originally published in The Hub.
Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the launch of a $150 million effort to directly address historic underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and math fields, and to prepare a new, more diverse generation of researchers and scholars to assume leading roles in tackling some of the world’s greatest challenges.
The Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative at Johns Hopkins—named for one of the institution’s most celebrated figures, a Black surgical laboratory supervisor best known for his work to develop a lifesaving cardiac surgical technique—will create new pathways for students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions to pursue and earn PhDs in STEM fields.
“STEM fields play an increasingly important role in developing innovative solutions to a wide range of pressing challenges, yet STEM PhD programs don’t reflect the broad diversity of our country,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, 108th mayor of New York City, and a Johns Hopkins alumnus. “So creating more equitable opportunities for more students is critical to our country’s future in so many ways.
“By supporting JHU’s world-class STEM program, and by partnering with historically Black and minority-serving schools that have a strong record of educating students who go on to get STEM PhDs, we will help increase diversity in industries that will pioneer advances we have not yet even imagined, and shape the lives of generations to come.”
Multiple studies dating to the late 1990s have shown that STEM PhD programs do not reflect the broad diversity of talent and perspectives that other fields of study have cultivated, nor have they effectively recruited scholars from diverse undergraduate institutions. National Science Foundation data show that in 2019, there were more than 30 fields of science—including multiple disciplines in biology, chemistry, physics, math, and engineering—in which fewer than five PhDs were awarded to Black or Latinx students in the U.S. While Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population and Latinx people 18%, in 2019 they received just 3% and 7%, respectively, of new engineering, math, physical sciences, and computer science PhDs, according to the NSF. The deficits in STEM diversity extend beyond Black and Latinx students; the percentage of science or engineering PhDs awarded to Native American, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander students has been stagnant at about a third of their share of the population for a decade.
“Scientific discovery that continually advances human flourishing and creates a healthier, safer world must be fueled by the expertise and insights of people of differing perspectives and ideas,” Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels said. “Yet decades of data and our own experience show the persistent truth that PhD programs, particularly in the STEM fields, do not reflect the full spectrum of available talent. We cannot hope to produce the best science nor ensure that our faculties are truly representative until we increase the diversity of our PhD programs. Through the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative, Johns Hopkins now has the opportunity and imperative to invest ambitiously, think ambitiously, and act ambitiously to begin correcting the longstanding inequity in PhD education.”
Johns Hopkins has made significant strides in increasing the percentage of undergraduate students from underrepresented minority backgrounds, and a number of programs throughout the university have made important advances on the graduate level. Still, historically underrepresented minorities make up just 11% of students in Johns Hopkins’ STEM PhD programs—slightly higher than the average of 9% reported by JHU’s private research university peers but still far from representative of the overall population.
Students recruited to the university through the new program announced today will be known as Vivien Thomas Scholars, in recognition of the man who developed and refined a corrective cardiac surgical technique to treat “blue baby syndrome” at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1940s. Despite conducting years of lab work to demonstrate that the procedure could be performed safely on a human patient, Thomas did not receive due credit for the lifesaving advance—known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt—for decades.
Thomas grew up in the Jim Crow South and enrolled as a premedical student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, a historically Black college in Nashville, but was forced to drop out due to the Great Depression and was never able to enroll in medical school. Despite his lack of an advanced degree, Thomas spent his career as a pioneering research and surgical assistant who trained generations of surgeons at Johns Hopkins. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Johns Hopkins University in 1976 and named instructor of surgery in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine until his retirement in 1979. Thomas died in 1985, at age 75, of pancreatic cancer.
The $150 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies will provide permanent funding to add a sustained cohort of approximately 100 new positions for diverse PhD students in JHU’s more than 30 STEM programs, representing disciplines ranging from neuroscience to physics to engineering. The initiative will engage in active outreach to applicants from HBCU and MSI institutions, a group that encompasses more than 450 four-year colleges and universities nationwide. Each scholar will receive up to six years of full tuition support, a stipend, health insurance and travel funding, along with significant mentorship, research, and professional development opportunities. Initial pathway programs will begin this summer, with the first cohort of Vivien Thomas Scholars entering Johns Hopkins PhD programs in the fall of 2022.
“Capturing diverse talent in STEM is critical to maximizing the creativity, excellence, and innovation necessary to create the best science and to apply that science to improve the human condition for all,” said Damani Arnold Piggott, assistant dean for graduate biomedical education and graduate student diversity at JHU, who has been tapped to lead the institution’s new effort as the inaugural associate vice provost for graduate diversity and partnerships. “We believe there is a wealth of untapped talent out there, and that through sustained outreach and support, we can encourage more students from diverse backgrounds to seek PhDs in these fields and become the next generation of transformational leaders in STEM. We are going to be privileged to have this cohort of scholars spend time with us on their journeys, and to be able to contribute in some small way to the amazing things they are going to do for the betterment of our society.”
More than $15 million in funding will be dedicated to strengthening pathways for talented undergraduates to pursue STEM PhDs at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere. Those efforts will begin with direct funding of programs at an initial cohort of six partner HBCUs and MSIs with an exceptional record of accomplishment in graduating students who advance to STEM PhD careers—Howard University; Morehouse College; Morgan State University; Prairie View A&M; Spelman College; and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“Spelman is eager to develop the partnership with Johns Hopkins, one of the world’s great research universities,” said Mary Schmidt Campbell, PhD, president of Spelman College. “The goals of the Vivien Thomas Scholars initiative align completely with our own and that is to continue to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who earn PhDs in STEM fields. With Spelman graduating more black women who obtain doctorates in STEM than any other college or university in the country, per the National Science Foundation, we believe that our faculty have a great deal to contribute in terms of recognizing the assets that our students bring and, with effective pedagogical strategies, building effectively on their strengths.”
Each partner institution will receive flexible funding to support its effort to attract and prepare undergraduate students for STEM graduate training and STEM careers. Inaugural partners will be critical in advising the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative as a whole, engaging additional MSIs, and identifying the optimal programming for scholars participating in the initiative.
“I commend Mayor Bloomberg and President Daniels for making this commitment to diversity in STEM graduate education,” said Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “We know that transformational philanthropy can produce more STEM researchers from underrepresented groups. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program, established with a visionary gift from Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff in 1988, has resulted in UMBC becoming the top U.S. producer of African American graduates going on to earn MD/PhD degrees, including STEM professionals and researchers around the country.”
The funding will also support the creation of new and expanded undergraduate summer and post-baccalaureate experiences for talented, diverse undergraduates to build connections with Johns Hopkins faculty and students, and provide exposure to the university’s research and scholarship, building on the success of existing pathways programs at Hopkins. All summer pathways programming will be fully funded, including housing and stipends for participants.
“Over the past decade, and through the enduring support of Mike Bloomberg’s philanthropy, Johns Hopkins has been intentional about building one of the most diverse and academically talented undergraduate student bodies in the country,” Daniels said. “We must take a similarly expansive approach to moving the needle in PhD education. We need such diverse leadership in all spheres of endeavor, and especially in our universities where bold ideas take shape and are brought to bear on the world’s great challenges. We are truly grateful for Mike Bloomberg’s vision and commitment in pushing us to new heights.”
Bloomberg has long focused on increasing equitable access and opportunity across higher education and last year launched the Greenwood Initiative at Bloomberg Philanthropies, an effort to accelerate the pace of Black wealth accumulation in the U.S. and address decades of systemic underinvestment in Black communities. The Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative is the third investment made by Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Greenwood Initiative since its launch in September 2020. The first investment was a $100 million partnership with the nation’s four historically Black medical schools to help ease the debt burden of approximately 800 Black medical students. The second investment was more than $6 million to those four schools to increase their mobile unit COVID-19 vaccination efforts and help ensure equitable access to vaccines within Black communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Since Bloomberg’s historic $1.8 billion gift for undergraduate financial aid at Johns Hopkins in 2018, the university has seen meaningful increases in the diversity and excellence of its undergraduate programs. With 32.5% self-identifying as a member of a racial or ethnic group that is historically underrepresented at the institution, Hopkins’ most recent entering class is the most diverse in the university’s history and also among the highest achieving in the nation in terms of grade point averages and standardized test scores.