Annual symposium aims to diversify STEM workforce
Will Boyd says it’s best if piglets don’t hog the delivery room.
“It’s easier to just do 1,000 [deliveries] than a little bit here and a little there. That puts uncertainty in the market,” said the Virginia Tech junior.
Boyd, an Animal and Poultry Science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, spent the summer researching farrow timeframes with Smithfield Foods, Inc. He was one of 37 students to present their findings during the 11th Annual Virginia-North Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation Symposium in Blacksburg on Oct. 15.
The alliance is part of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, which is a project funded by the National Science Foundation. It aims to diversify the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics workforce by increasing the number of underrepresented minority students earning higher education degrees.
Virginia Tech was one of the anchoring institutions when the alliance formed in 2007. The Louis Stokes Alliance at Virginia Tech is housed under the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program.
The program offers students a variety of services and activities including stipends, mentoring, bridge programs, and research opportunities.
“This program has provided me with scholarship funds, which have helped me in school because I’m not working,” Boyd said. “It’s allowed me to take other opportunities and get to meet people and that’s really helped me.”
During its first 10 years, the alliance has helped produce a 90 percent increase in underrepresented minority students studying in STEM fields and a 174 percent increase in STEM degrees earned, according to the University of Virginia’s Marcus Martin who serves as the alliance’s principal investigator. A majority of the former participants have earned graduate/professional degrees in STEM.
The annual symposium allows students to showcase their work, network with students from other campuses, and explore other academic opportunities. There were 150 registrants at this year’s event.
Such opportunities led Thomas Nelson Community College student, Monica Gurung, to work with researchers in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech through the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program Summer Research Internship in 2018.
Gurung said she learned a lot about her research topic, vapor intrusion, and a lot about what it means to be a Hokie.
“I really feel welcome here,” Gurung said. “I don’t want to be the one minority studying engineering. I want to just be an engineering student. I think Tech allows me to just look like me.”
And that impression led to her altering her previous education plans.
“I decided to take one more semester [at Thomas Nelson] and then transfer to Tech. That’s how much I liked it,” Gurung said.
The symposium’s keynote speaker, Alicia Traughber, had a similar experience when she first visited Virginia Tech as summer research intern in the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program in 2011. Once she graduated from Oakwood University in Alabama, she returned to Virginia Tech to participate in VT-PREP, a National Institutes of Health post-baccalaureate Program.
“I was just looking at all these buildings, the Hokie Stone, it’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else,” Traughber said. “I love it.”
Currently a doctoral candidate in the Molecular Medicine Program at the Cleveland Clinic/Case Western Reserve University, Traughber credits Virginia Tech faculty members Daniel Capelluto and Ed Smith as being her mentors. At the symposium luncheon, she shared with the audience that they assisted her in navigating graduate school and continue to provide her guidance for her future career. She left the students with a simple charge.
“I just want to let students know that no matter what your grades look like, no matter where you come from, what you look like, if you want to do this, nothing is stopping you but you,” she said. “You just got to put in the work and go.”
Along with Virginia Tech, the Virginia-North Carolina Alliance institutions is composed of Bennett College, Elizabeth City State University, George Mason University, Johnson C. Smith University, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Old Dominion University, Piedmont Virginia Community College, St. Augustine’s University, Thomas Nelson Community College, University of Virginia, and Virginia Commonwealth University.
— Written by Travis Williams