Grant powers efforts to increase Latino representation in STEM degrees and careers

September 29, 2021

Diversity brings new perspectives to problems that can boost innovation. For example, research shows that companies with greater racial and ethnic diversity perform better financially. Yet in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields — fields with the potential to solve some of our world’s biggest challenges — many groups are not well represented.

Recently, the National Science Foundation awarded $9.975 million to an Arizona State University-led network to increase Latino representation in STEM degrees and careers. Illustration of group of diverse scientists gathered around large lab equipment Download Full Image

The grant is part of the NSF INCLUDES program, which aims to enhance preparation, increase participation and ensure the inclusion of individuals from historically underrepresented groups in STEM education.

The grant was awarded to the Accelerate LatinxLatinx is the gender-neutral form of Latino preferred by some individuals and organizations. Representation in STEM Education (ALRISE) Alliance, a collaborative group of institutions and organizations that will share resources, data, research and best practices, led by ASU’s Center for Broadening Participation in STEM. The center, formerly known as the Science Foundation Arizona Center for STEM, works to increase participation of marginalized individuals in STEM education.

Below, center Director Caroline VanIngen-Dunn and School of Life Sciences Professor Shelley Haydel — who leads undergraduate research experiences for the alliance — discuss how the ALRISE program will affect Latino students, community colleges and universities, and the future of the STEM workforce in the U.S.

Question: Why is this award important?

Haydel: Nationally, we know that Latinx, Black and Native American people remain underrepresented in STEM. We must continue to eliminate these gaps and strive for equitable results in student retention, degree completion and workforce engagement. We know that undergraduate research experiences increase awareness of STEM careers, STEM self-confidence, STEM major retention and STEM graduation for underrepresented persons, many of whom are the first generation to go to college and have not seen other community members in these careers.

Q: What will it mean to be a part of these new NSF INCLUDES Alliances?

Haydel: With this new ALRISE Alliance grant, we have a unique opportunity to participate in the NSF INCLUDES National Network, a community of over 3,000 members, collectively working to improve diversity and inclusion in STEM. One area that I am most excited about is our focus on asset-based thinking. So much of education research focuses on negative outcomes, how poorly students are doing "this" and how poorly faculty are doing "that." I have found that our instructional faculty want to improve and are intrinsically motivated to engage in these efforts. It’s our job to involve them in these scholarly activities as we work to instill intentionality and focus on asset-oriented educator training, coaching and capacity-building.

Q: What is the goal of the ALRISE program?

VanIngen-Dunn: It fulfills a mission that National Science Foundation has to broaden participation in STEM. A significant feature of this ALRISE Alliance and the other alliances that NSF is funding is the goal to transform systems.  

This alliance that we've put together will effect systemic change in areas specific to the Latinx community of students. It is about supporting students to pursue their STEM degrees and careers, and supporting the faculty to be more intentional about making sure their students are successful in meeting their goals. By doing that, you end up lifting the entire community of students. It's not going to be just Hispanic students who benefit.

Q: What is ASU’s role?

VanIngen-Dunn: We're what we call the backbone organization of the ALRISE Alliance, which means that we will support each member organization to meet their individual goals, and by doing so, achieve the collective goals of the overall alliance. We will also coordinate the efforts of the alliance subgroups, of which there are five: the Hispanic-Serving Institute, Identity and Intentionality subgroup will develop the curriculum for cultural responsiveness in experiential learning and deliver it through faculty professional development; the Undergraduate Research Experiences subgroup will form a network of undergraduate research programs that already exist and are successfully being used; the Work-based Experiences subgroup benefits from technology councils across the country and their industry members to create work-based experiences for students; and the Research subgroup will collect data from alliance participants to address its research questions and support the evaluation effort, which is significant. The Advocacy and Policy subgroup is led by Excelencia in Education, a Washington, D.C.-based data-driven advocacy organization for Hispanic-Serving InstitutionsHispanic-Serving Institutions are colleges or universities where Hispanic students make up at least 25% of enrollment..

Haydel: In 2019, I launched the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research: Improving Access, Community and Teamwork (SOLUR ImpACT) Initiative that provided stipends for underrepresented undergraduate student researchers. All SOLUR ImpACT scholars graduated with their STEM degrees, with some going on to graduate degree programs, medical school or health care positions. I’m hoping that we can leverage the NSF INCLUDES ALRISE Alliance and National Network to scale these positive outcomes and ensure success for thousands of Latinx students. Our national STEM workforce and global STEM competitiveness depend on it.

Q: How will you address Latino education and representation in STEM?

VanIngen-Dunn: There are five systems that we aim to change. One is that there are campus environments that are not intentionally culturally responsive to Latinx STEM students. Another is that STEM educators often have a deficit mindset, which devalues Latinx students’ strengths, resiliency and assets. Focusing on the faculty members’ mindsets really places the work of change on institutions and educators instead, creating an environment that fosters reproducible success.

The third system we have to change is the leaky pipeline, where rates for Latinx retention and completion in STEM programs are significantly lower than the enrollment rates. Many want to go into STEM, and then they get into programs and environments with so many barriers that they end up dropping out.

For example, we know that undergraduate research experiences (UREs) are difficult for community college students to attain. We want to give them a leg up so that when they transfer to a university, they're as prepared as their university peers to participate in UREs. We plan to offer them what we call classroom-based undergraduate research experiences, where an instructor creates a research project that the entire classroom can be a part of. Then the research becomes part of the curriculum, like a science class, as opposed to having to do research as an extracurricular.

A fourth focus is that Hispanics are underrepresented in STEM jobs. The percent of people in STEM careers that are Hispanic is very low compared to the overall set of jobs. While providing research experiences will help to address this, we are also going to provide work-based experiences. We will connect employers with faculty to create industry-relevant classroom projects that they know will develop the skills they will look for in future employees, and we will work with companies who can offer internships for these students.

Finally, research studies on innovative pipelines for underrepresented students are limited, so we think the alliance provides a huge opportunity and a unique case to make in doing research to inform these knowledge gaps.

Q: What makes the center well-equipped to address this area of need?

VanIngen-Dunn: It's probably been 10 years that our center has explored the intersectionality of Latinx students, the Hispanic population growing here in Arizona, STEM education and community colleges. This was an easy proposal for us to do, because it builds on all the programs and research that we have carried out to date.

I also think that our center is primed to be the backbone organization because of ASU’s mission. Success is measured not by whom we exclude but rather by whom we include and how they succeed. I feel that there's a really great opportunity for us to showcase what ASU’s already doing quite well. We have the resources and experience to lead, assist and be a role model for a lot of these other institutions.

Q: What are some outcomes that you hope to see from the ALRISE program?

VanIngen-Dunn: Over the next five years, we will see students complete a minimum of about 1,500 experiential learning opportunities. The goal is to get a better understanding of participating students’ experiences, improve Latinx STEM student equity and increase Latinx student participation in the STEM workforce. We will document the common challenges and synergies within and across the alliance, so we can understand the factors leading to student success.

All these students who have participated in experiential learning will answer a survey to find out how it has impacted what we call their STEM identity, feeling good about being there. The hardest part will be to find out where they go after graduation. Hopefully, the relationships that we build with industry will give us a way to track students’ hiring.

We will also give participating faculty a survey to learn how the professional development influenced the use of evidence-based practices for experiential learning. Faculty teams will receive training that shows them how to take what they’ve learned in professional development and share that with their colleagues within the institution.

At the institutional program level, we will collect and aggregate data across all colleges involved to see the trends related to the five system areas we aim to change with ALRISE. There is a challenge in showing systemic change in just a five-year grant. Ideally, we hope to show trends that are promising so that we can continue to do this work beyond the five years. We hope to be able to achieve sustainability and scale through the research that we're doing, by contributing new knowledge and bringing in other colleges to participate in the alliance.

The ALRISE Alliance is launching with a member audience comprising 25 primarily two-year Hispanic Serving Institutions, organized into four regional hubs led by two-year HSI Hub Coordinators: The Western Hub with nine California colleges is led by Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California; the Southwestern Hub with six Arizona and Illinois colleges is led by Phoenix College in Arizona; the South Central Hub with nine New Mexico and Texas colleges is led by Palo Alto College in San Antonio; and the Eastern Hub is led by Miami Dade College in Florida, where they are beginning to recruit interested partners from Puerto Rico, Florida and New York.

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU professor awarded Chan Zuckerberg Initiative grant to support software essential to biomedicine

September 29, 2021

MDAnalysis — an open-source software used by thousands of scientists for the analysis and manipulation of molecular simulations — was recently recognized by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with an Essential Open Source Software for Science (EOSS) grant for the significant contribution it has on the field of biomedicine. 

The $374,087 grant will provide funding to improve and maintain the MDAnalysis software over the next two years. The team behind MDAnalysis is led by Oliver Beckstein, associate professor in Arizona State University’s Department of Physics. Portrait of ASU Associate Professor Oliver Beckstein Oliver Beckstein, associate professor in ASU’s Department of Physics, was recently recognized by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with an Essential Open Source Software for Science (EOSS) grant to support MDAnalysis — an open-source software used by thousands of scientists for the analysis and manipulation of molecular simulations. Download Full Image

The grant is part of the fourth cycle of the EOSS program, with a total of $11.1 million in funding for 35 new grants to support maintenance, growth, development and community engagement for tools that are widely used in biomedical imaging, genomics, cell biology, bioinformatics and other fields. In addition, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative also awarded $4.9 million to 14 proposals led by previously funded EOSS grantees for initiatives dedicated to advancing diversity and inclusion in their contributor communities.

With more than 10,000 downloads a month, MDAnalysis has grown exponentially since it was first developed 13 years ago.

“It started as a small project of a graduate student and over the years attracted developers from all over the world and has become one of the most used packages of its kind for the analysis of molecular simulations, especially in the biosciences, but also in materials sciences, and it's also used in the pharma industry,” Beckstein said. “However, over all this time, the developers were never really paid to work on this software — it's all been volunteer work.”

Over the years the software has been maintained by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, with assistance from research software engineers and assistant professors. Now, MDAnalysis will have the resources to support a number of developers so that they can focus on the software and work on improving it in a number of ways.

"We are incredibly proud of Dr. Beckstein for receiving the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative grant,” said Patricia Rankin, chair of the Department of Physics in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "The Beckstein Lab's work in biophysics of membrane protein and their work on open-source software for the analysis of biomolecular simulations continues to demonstrate innovation within the Department of Physics. These awards will allow Dr. Beckstein and his team to continue their work, and we cannot wait to see the innovative work they produce next."

Beckstein shared more about the software and how the grant will propel this work forward.

Question: How would you describe MDAnalysis?

Answer: Computer simulations at the molecular scale have become a very important tool in the molecular sciences, namely understanding the function of biological systems from individual proteins to the interactions between cells and viruses, and the development of new materials. These simulations run on the biggest supercomputers in the world and produce huge amounts of data. MDAnalysis is a software package that enables researchers to efficiently and easily work with these data and analyze them. Novices and experts can use MDAnalysis because it provides both ready-made tools for common tasks but also fully documented programmatic access to all the data structures and algorithms that one needs to develop completely new solutions.

Q: What goals do you hope to achieve with the support of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative grant? 

A: We want to speed up some of the core of our code so that it works faster, even for very big simulation systems with tens of millions of atoms. Our users always desire higher performance. But there's generally no funding to be had for such important work because most granting agencies prize novelty over what is often seen as "incremental" work, even though it has an enormous impact when thousands of researchers can get their results in a fraction of the time. The grant allows us to do something that we could normally not do. Another common problem in the molecular computational sciences is that everybody writes code and all research relies on this code, but not enough researchers make their code available. This leads to widely recognized problems: Research is difficult or impossible to reproduce, and effort is wasted due to code duplication when other researchers need to solve similar problems. Although MDAnalysis comes with a growing number of essential analysis tools that everybody can use and modify, these tools cannot cover all the new and creative use cases that scientists come up with. Therefore, we will make it easier for other researchers to share and publicize their code in the form of "code packages" named “MDAnalysis-Kits.” The grant will allow us to build the tools and documentation so researchers can turn their research code into a high-quality professional software package based on MDAnalysis. We hope that researchers will welcome the opportunity to make their work available to the large MDAnalysis user community.

Q: When did this project come about, and what interests you most about this work?

A: MDAnalysis was started by Naveen Michaud-Agrawal in 2006, then a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Another graduate student, Elizabeth Denning and I (then a postdoc at Johns Hopkins) used it and contributed code. We decided to open-source MDAnalysis in January 2008. Naveen eventually left academia, but Elizabeth and I continued work on MDAnalysis. Over the years, both users and contributors grew. By now, MDAnalysis is cited more than 1,700 times in the scientific literature, we have had more than 130 individuals contributing code so far and we now have a core developer team of about nine people who collectively steer the project, run workshops or write proposals together. Obviously, we use MDAnalysis everywhere in our own research, so it’s great to have a good scientific multipurpose tool at hand that allows us to implement our own new ideas. Overall, I am most happy about the fact that MDAnalysis is not just a useful piece of software for so many but that MDAnalysis has become its own thriving community that is known to be very welcoming and inclusive. 

Q: Who will be a part of your team, and how long do you anticipate working on this project? 

A: The team leading the work on the grant are Irfan Alibay, a postdoc at the University of Oxford in the U.K.; Lily Wang, a PhD student from the Australian National University in Canberra; Fiona Naughton, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco; and Richard Gowers, who works as a lead developer for a cheminformatics company in the U.K. We will also hire a postdoctoral student here at ASU. The grant runs for two years, but even after then I foresee that I will continue to be involved in MDAnalysis.

Emily Balli

Communications Specialist and Lead Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences