The need for a diverse workforce in STEM fields remains strong and some industry leaders are investing in Washington State University’s Team Mentoring Program (TMP) to help increase their pool of candidates.

TMP was created in 2007 to increase the participation, retention, and graduation of underrepresented minorities and women in sciences, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and pre-health disciplines.

The Washington Research Foundation (WRF), which supports groundbreaking technology in the sciences by advancing research and early-stage entrepreneurs, recently committed $90,000 to help fund TMP for an additional three years. It has been supporting TMP since 2016. Boeing, a contributor since 2009, continued its support this year with a $20,000 grant.

“This support allows us to provide TMP students with research opportunities, textbooks, and travel grants,” said J. Manuel Acevedo, director of mentoring programs and assessment for Community, Equity and Inclusive Excellence. “In the end, it is the opportunity to network and make connections with faculty and a team of researchers, that students find so valuable.”

A proven program

As much as STEM companies are reaching out to diverse job candidates, Beth Etscheid, WRF director of grant programs, said they want to see even more graduates with diverse backgrounds come into the job market.

“The numbers of diverse scientists are so low it’s difficult to see trends of improvement,” Etscheid said. “We expect that investments in programs like the Team Mentoring Program will pay off, but we know that it may be a while before we see significant diversity in the ranks of academic and industry scientists.”

WRF and Boeing are drawn to TMP because it has demonstrated success in producing diverse STEM graduates with cutting-edge research experience.

Acevedo said the most recent data shows 79% of the students who actively participated in TMP between 2016 and 2018 stayed in a STEM major or graduated.

That sustained success led to TMP receiving the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring from the National Science Foundation, which administers the award on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Think like a researcher

A junior majoring in biological engineering, Jamil Fields dreams of one day creating new pharmaceutical drugs that will help people manage their ailments or even cure diseases.

As a participant in TMP, last summer he worked in a chemistry lab on the Pullman campus, something he continued to do through fall semester.

His project focused on creating a new vessel made of polydimethylsiloxane, a silicon polymer compound. The vessel will allow researchers to hold chemicals that are used to stain proteins and for other purposes, without worrying about the vessel ever dissolving.

“It’s been a valuable experience in so many ways, even to learn how a researcher thinks,” Fields said. “For example, our work is done in a nanoscale or micron size. I thought a half of a millimeter is small, but that’s huge to these researchers.”

Fields said unless you know someone who works in a lab, finding research experience as an undergraduate can be challenging. TMP simplifies that process, and by including scholarship support, it allows students like Fields to work in labs without worrying about needing other jobs.

Grow as a leader

Closeup of Emily Keister
TMP Mentor Emily Keister

Etscheid noted the quality of students’ research experience reflects the number of outstanding faculty mentors participating in the program. TMP is also known for its team of student mentors like Emily Keister.

Keister, who was recently accepted into optometry school at Pacific University in Oregon, credits her TMP experience mentoring diverse students with helping her become a strong candidate. The university provides free eye screenings to migrant families and she shared during her interview that she has worked with students from migrant backgrounds.

“Being a mentor forced me to come out of my shell and become a more confident person,” Keister said. “I have learned to work with others and grow as a leader.”

WSU alumnus and Boeing 737 Production Engineering Manager Rocky Gutierrez said students like Keister and Fields are exactly what the STEM industry needs. “We have found that diverse employees bring different ideas and different approaches to the table, often resolving problems quicker,” Gutierrez said. “It’s really important.”

TMP is led by MSS in the Division of Student Affairs in partnership with the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences; College of Arts and Sciences; College of Veterinary Medicine and the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture.