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FAMU-FSU Engineering professor receives NSF Grant to mentor minorities for academic careers

Story by
Trisha Radulovich
Dr. Clayton Clark II

Recent National Science Foundation (NSF) reports indicate that underrepresented minority science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) associate and full professors occupy just eight percent of senior faculty positions at all four-year colleges and universities, and only about six percent of these positions at the nation's most research-intensive institutions. With steady growth in minority groups that is changing the U.S. population mix overall, minority representation in academia is not keeping pace.

That’s sobering news for a field where multicultural engineers are increasingly valued for their unique contributions to the field and for the creative strength of diverse engineering teams in both industry and academia.

FAMU-FSU College of Engineering civil and environmental engineering professor Clayton J. Clark II, Ph.D., P.E. was recently awarded prestigious NSF grant to direct a collaborative research study involving the Alliance for Graduate Education for the Professoriate (AGEP). The AGEP grant focuses on advancing historically underrepresented postdoctoral scholars and early-career faculty in engineering. The primary goals of AGEP are to significantly increase the number of underrepresented minorities, including African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders.

“The numbers show that there are very few underrepresented groups in engineering and even fewer are engineering professors. The postdoctoral mentorship grant is really a bridge to increase opportunities for these scholars to be successful in their matriculation,” Clark explained. The AGEP Engineering Alliance has the potential to advance a model to improve the success of early-career faculty in the field of engineering, which ultimately leads to improved academic mentorship for underrepresented undergraduate and graduate students in STEM. 

This AGEP program brings together four universities with different opportunities to enrich postdoctoral students, including Georgia Institute of Technology, Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, William Marsh Rice University, and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Clark says the importance of the collaboration is directly related to the experience that each principle investigator brings to the table.

“Whether the student is coming from a Research-1 institution or an Historically Black College and University, we have walked in their shoes,” Clark said. “Each researcher has had a similar experience. We can help them navigate the institutional differences of each university—everything from writing grants to mentorship.”

The experience each professor contributes to the project is distinct. Comas Haynes, Ph.D. is an electrical and computer engineering alumna from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering and is the lead researcher from Georgia Tech. Haynes will initially contribute the most postdoctoral students to the project. Cecil F. Higgs III, Ph.D., Rice University’s associate provost and mechanical engineer, and is the lead project faculty from that institution. Originally from Tallahassee, Higgs was previously a high-level researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. Sylvia Mendez, Ph.D. is the lead from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She and colleague Molly Stuhlsatz, Ph.D. are setting up data analysis and model research for the project. 

Clark received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering and his master’s and doctorate at the University of Florida in environmental engineering. After working as an assistant professor and researcher there, Clark joined FAMU-FSU Engineering in 2008. His experience as a graduate student and professor at both a Research-1 institute and at an HBCU will contribute to the team overall and he will direct the study.

“NSF is very interested in the results of our study. They currently don’t have enough data, so they are really interested in the results and model being developed that it may be replicated by other institutions,” Clark says. “The success for us will be the students who actually go into academia. We are concerned about the next generation. We hope to have a group of students the opportunity to be mentored by faculty who really understand their journey.” 

The National Science Foundation awarded a grant of $ 404,853 to Florida A&M University for study directed by Clark, which begins Jan. 1, 2019 and ends Dec. 31, 2023.