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UTEP to Study How Research Mentorships Influence Future Diversity of Scholars

Last Updated on October 07, 2021 at 1:00 PM

Originally published October 07, 2021

By Daniel Perez

UTEP Communications

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a four-year, $248,000 grant to The University of Texas at El Paso to study how different undergraduate/mentor research partnerships influence future diversity in STEM scholars.

Danielle Xiaodan Morales, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology, will lead an interdisciplinary research team to study the effect of race, gender, socio-economic status and other factors on the development of future STEM researchers. Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications
Danielle Xiaodan Morales, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology, will lead an interdisciplinary research team to study the effect of race, gender, socio-economic status and other factors on the development of future STEM researchers. Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

Danielle Xiaodan Morales, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology, is the principal investigator. She is among the researchers who will explore collaborations where students and mentors do and do not share the same race, gender or socio-economic status, and record the influence that has on the undergraduates. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is the national research host.

Past studies have shown that mentored undergraduate research experiences are effective to increase the number of minority students who want to pursue graduate programs and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research careers. Since women and other minorities remain underrepresented in the professoriate, the mentors often have different backgrounds from the undergraduates.

Morales’ study, “Collaborative Research: Effects of Mentoring Relationship Heterogeneity on Student Outcomes Among NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates,” will begin during the summer of 2022. This will be the most comprehensive study of its type that Morales has undertaken in the past five years. Her initial research focused on gender. She followed that with a study that also involved ethnicity and other demographics.

She said her previous studies, many of which have been published in peer-reviewed journals, as well as those done by others, have shown pros and cons of working with mentors from the same or different backgrounds. Similar backgrounds adds a level of comfort and creates a “role model” effect. Different upbringings give students a chance to work with people from diverse backgrounds. Data from a third research group found that differences of race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic status does not matter if the mentor has good mentoring skills.

“We want to fill this gap in the literature,” Morales said. “This project will give us the opportunity to look through different (areas) – social class, ethnicity. It definitely will be a next step for my research.”

Morales said she studies this topic because today in the United States, more minority, women and first-generation college students are pursuing STEM research careers, thanks to grants and interventions. At the same time, the majority of faculty researchers in higher education are still white males.

The National Center for Education Statistics stated that in fall 2018, approximately 1.5 million faculty worked at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. Of those, 54% were full-time faculty. Of the full-time faculty, 40% were white males, 35% were white females, 7% were Asian/Pacific Islander males, 5% were Asian/Pacific Islander females, and 3% were Black males and females, and Hispanic males and females. Other demographics made up 1% or less each.

Morales’ initial research on this topic as the principal investigator was as a postdoctoral fellow with BUILDing SCHOLARS. She praised the program and its director, Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., for how both influenced her research interests in mentorship.

Mentors play a big part in BUILDing SCHOLARS, a National Institutes of Health-funded research-intensive training opportunity meant to diversify future generations of biomedical investigators. Its name is an acronym for Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity: Southwest Consortium of Health-Oriented Education Leaders and Research Scholars.

Echegoyen, research associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI), said Morales’ mentorship research is necessary to understand better how nuances such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation as well as socioeconomic and first-generation status affect mentor-mentee relationships.

“The results will lead to information on best mentoring practices and mentor training needs to ensure student success as we continue to pursue an increase in STEM workforce diversity,” Echegoyen said.

Morales said that she would use the next few months to build her research team, recruit participants and refine the research questions. She said the project would include surveys and/or interviews of approximately 860 undergraduates who are involved in about 87 NSF-funded research activities throughout the United States. Her team will collect the data at the end of each summer program via a virtual survey. Additionally, investigators will interview 42 of the students – to include some UTEP students – in 2022 and speak with them again in 2023. The team also will meet with several of the mentor researchers.

She said she plans to hire two UTEP graduate students and two undergraduates to assist her. At the same time, she will work with faculty collaborators from the University of Utah, who also have promised to hire some UTEP students to help with the research.

The Utah collaborators are former UTEP faculty members Sara Grineski, Ph.D., professor of sociology and environmental studies, and Tim Collins, Ph.D., professor of geography.

Grineski, the grant’s PI at Utah, said she has conducted research with Morales since 2015 when Morales had a post-doctoral position with UTEP’s BUILDing SCHOLARS. They have collaborated several times since then.

The Utah professor said that she and Collins would oversee in-depth interviews with undergraduate researchers and help Morales with the longitudinal survey of the same individuals.

“So often we engage in mentoring relationships as faculty members, graduate students and undergraduate students without really thinking critically about them,” Grineski said. “Danielle’s work raises awareness about the different elements of mentoring that we as faculty mentors may overlook but need to carefully consider in order to be better mentors to undergraduate students, especially those from groups traditionally underrepresented in science.”