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Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg Philanthropies have announced  The Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative, a $150 million effort to boost diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

The inaugural partner institutions are Morehouse College, Spelman College, Howard, Morgan State, Prairie View A&M universities, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) led by Dr. Freeman Hrawbowski, the 2014 Black Engineer of the Year.

Vivien Thomas is a hidden figure in the field of pioneering heart surgery. His contributions went unrecognized for decades. According to the statement, the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative is devoted to preparing a new generation of researchers and scholars to assume leadership roles in tackling some of the world’s greatest challenges. The Ph.D. students recruited through this program will be known as the Vivien Thomas Scholars.

Thomas was a Black surgical laboratory supervisor who is best known for his work to develop a cardiac surgery technique to treat “blue baby syndrome” (Blalock-Taussig shunt) at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1940s. Thomas enrolled as a premedical student at Tennessee A&I College (now known as Tennessee State University) but was forced to drop out. Despite this setback, Thomas spent his career as pioneering research and surgical assistant. In 1976 Thomas was awarded an honorary doctorate by Johns Hopkins University and named instructor of surgery in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. (Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins).

The $150 million effort funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies will be endowed to create additional pathways for students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to pursue and receive PhDs in STEM fields.

“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 Dr. Damani Arnold Piggott, assistant dean for graduate biomedical education and graduate student diversity at Johns Hopkins University, 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,” he added.

Although Johns Hopkins has increased the diversity of its undergraduate student body in recent years, historically underrepresented minorities make up 11 percent of students in Johns Hopkins’ STEM Ph.D. programs, a slightly higher rate than the average of 9 percent its private research university peers report to the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System but still far from representative of the overall population.

Through the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative, the university will dramatically scale up its efforts to diversify its STEM Ph.D. programs and graduate more diverse Ph.D. recipients to help bring sorely needed new voices and backgrounds to STEM industries and workforces.

“STEM fields play an increasingly important role in developing innovative solutions to a wide range of pressing challenges, yet STEM Ph.D. programs don’t reflect the broad diversity of our country. So creating more equitable opportunities for more students is critical to our country’s future in so many ways,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies and 108th mayor of New York City. “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.”

Bloomberg, a Johns Hopkins alumnus, changed the lives of countless current and future undergraduates at Johns Hopkins University with his historic $1.8 billion donation to undergraduate financial aid in 2018. Since the gift was implemented, Johns Hopkins has seen marked increases in the diversity and excellence of its undergraduate programs.

With 32.5 percent 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 most highly talented in the nation in terms of grade point averages and standardized test scores.

National Science Foundation (NSF) 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 United States.

While Black Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population and Latinx people 18 percent, in 2019 they received just three and seven percent, 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. Yet, decades of data and our own experience show the persistent truth that Ph.D. programs, particularly in the STEM fields, do not reflect the full spectrum of available talent,” said Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University. “We cannot hope to produce the best science nor ensure that our faculties are truly representative until we increase the diversity of our Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. education.”

The initiative will provide permanent funding to add a sustained cohort of approximately 100 new slots for diverse Ph.D. 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 matriculating from HBCU and MSI institutions – encompassing more than 450 four-year colleges and universities nationwide.

More than a third of Black STEM Ph.D. holders earned their undergraduate degrees at HBCUs, reflecting those institutions’ generations of leadership in supporting the talent of outstanding and diverse scholars. This gift will support up to six years of stipend, health insurance, and travel funding, along with significant mentorship, research, and professional development opportunities. Up to six years of tuition for each Ph.D. student will be supported by the Ph.D. programs, departments, or schools. Initial pathway programs will begin this summer, with the first cohort of Vivien Thomas Scholars entering Johns Hopkins Ph.D. programs in the fall of 2022.

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 partner HBCUs and MSIs with an exceptional record of accomplishment in graduating students who advance to STEM Ph.D. careers. Each Inaugural Partner will receive flexible funding, to be used at the institution’s strategic direction to continue to attract and prepare their 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/Ph.D. degrees, including STEM professionals and researchers around the country.”

The funding will also support the establishment 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.


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