Sandra Petersen - Professor of Molecular Neuroendocrinology of Reproduction; Director, STEM Diversity Institute

Dr. Petersen is a neuroendocrinologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMA) whose work has been continuously funded by NIH for 24 years. She is a national science advisor through her appointment on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Board for the Reassessment of Dioxin.

She is Director of the Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (NEAGEP), a consortium of ten large universities in the Northeast (Rutgers, The State University, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, and all the New England state flagship campuses) paired with five minority-serving Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): Jackson State University, Lincoln University, Medgar Evers College, Bennett College, and the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. Faculty at NEAGEP institutions are paired with faculty at the HBCUs for a faculty residence program which builds research collaborations and networks among the HBCU faculty and students with the other NEAGEP partner institutions.

She has personally mentored more than 45 undergraduate and graduate students from groups underrepresented in STEM fields (of whom 20 have earned the PhD). Her mentoring strategy is simple and compelling:
• Build a supportive community;
• Create an atmosphere of confidence;
• Engage in multi-tiered mentoring beginning at undergraduate matriculation;
• Develop student professional networks;
• Re-adjust when circumstances call for it; and
• Integrate programs across departments, and from the undergraduate to graduate levels.

In her ten years as NEAGEP director, Petersen led the Amherst campus in tripling minority student enrollments in STEM graduate programs and retaining the students through degree completion. Enrollment of minority students in STEM programs increased from 22 before NEAGEP to a current enrollment of 63; and the retention rate rose from 45% to approximately 80%, higher than the persistence of majority students.

Across the entire UMA-led NEAGEP, students in the STEM PhD. pathway increased 63%, compared to the national average increase of 35% across all other projects under NSF’s Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate. Moreover, the total enrollment of minority students in NEAGEP STEM PhD programs increased from 540 before NEAGEP to 1100 in 2011-2012, and the annual number of degrees earned increased from approximately 75 before NEAGEP to 119.

Recently, Petersen created and now leads the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s STEM Diversity Institute (SDI). This is a novel integration of new and existing programs to extend inclusion at every level: K-12 outreach, community colleges, undergraduates, graduates, post-doctoral fellows, and faculty. SDI encompasses efforts both at Amherst and at partner institutions. It provides the strategies for broadening participation such as multi-tiered mentoring across disciplines, coordination with national efforts focused on diversifying the science work force, and the integration of evaluations and action-research that are critical for improving best practices in the field.

As Director of NEAGEP, Dr. Petersen has added programs to enhance the ability of campuses in the NEAGEP group to recruit and retain historically underrepresented groups in STEM disciplines. Activities she has initiated include:
• The NIH Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program for candidates in biomedical fields;
• An award in cellular engineering with strong female and minority leadership participation under the NSF Integrative
Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program;
• Building campus-wide buy-in for a project to increase the presence of minority women in leadership positions; and
• Preparing a proposal for a NIH Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award, a Minority Males in STEM Institute grant, and a NIH Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program.