BME Succeeds in Recruiting Underrepresented Minorities to Graduate School

Audrey Ellerbee is a current doctoral student in biomedical engineering whose work aims to capture the 3D dynamics within single cells.

The Pratt School of Engineering’s biomedical engineering (BME) department has had success in solving one of the most persistent problems in math, science and engineering graduate education: the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities (URM) to doctoral programs.

Prior to 1995, the school of engineering had granted only one Ph.D. to an African American. By 2006, five additional African American students defended their doctorates in Pratt, four in BME and one in mechanical engineering and materials science.

Professor of biomedical engineering and chemistry William “Monty” Reichert, who has played a significant role in the BME department’s changing demographics, presented the success story in the Summer 2006 issue of Liberal Education. Read Reichert's original writing here.

“The BME department, which has a nationally top-ranked graduate program, had never granted a Ph.D. to an African American in its 30 years of existence” wrote Reichert. “All African American students recruited into the BME doctoral program had either left with a Master’s degree or dropped out altogether.”

As the former director of graduate studies in BME, Reichert took it upon himself to change that trend. Through a combination of funding from the graduate school, NIH training grants and a Duke Endowment fellowship, he recruited and mentored a “crucial nucleus” of two URM graduate students in 1998 and 1999. He said he then broadened the effort, recruiting a second wave of students and encouraging other BME faculty to take URM students into their research groups.

“By the end of my term as director of graduate studies in 2003, 10 URM graduate students were working in the research groups of seven different BME faculty members,” Reichert said. The BME department now includes a URM cohort of 14 doctoral students –— more than a quarter of the total URM doctoral students in all of Duke’s 32 graduate programs in math and science, and nearly one-tenth of the total URM students enrolled in all 50 Ph.D.-granting programs at Duke (see

Rather than waiting for the institution to solve the problem systemically, Reichert recommends that individuals, whatever their role, focus recruitment efforts in areas over which they have immediate influence.

“If you are a faculty member who wants things to change, then recruit a minority student directly into your own group and give the student a home from the day he or she walks onto campus,” he wrote. “If you are a graduate program director who wants to make a difference, then make personal and selective appeals for open-minded faculty members to recruit specific URM students. If you are an administrator who wants to help, then provide the willing with the resources and independence to successfully recruit and retain URM students.”

“There are various ways to succeed in recruiting and retaining URM doctoral students; but key to them all is the creation of real student-faculty relationships, which demonstrate by example that diversity and excellence can and should coexist. This cannot be delegated or done indirectly, and no amount of outreach, campus visits, or diversity awareness activities –— however well-intentioned –— can achieve the effect of positive examples. Ultimately, seeing is believing.”