Advancing STEM Persistence among Graduate Women of Color through an Examination of Institutional Contributors and Deterrents to Mental Health
Effective Years: 2021-2026
The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a National Science Foundation-wide activity that offers awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. This project aims to serve the national interest by addressing the inequitable representation of graduate Women of Color (WoC) (i.e., Black/African American, Latina, Indigenous, and Asian American women) in STEM. This continued underrepresentation of WoC has been attributed, in part, to negative encounters in STEM characterized by alienating and marginalizing program environments. Yet, existing efforts designed to broaden participation in STEM have largely focused on academic and professional challenges that influence STEM persistence, with little attention to the psychological toll of persisting in STEM environments rife with systemic oppression (e.g., gendered racism). Research has linked racism-related stress, perceived discrimination, microaggressions, minority status stress, and isolation to many negative psychological outcomes such as depression, anxiety, and stress. Furthermore, increased psychological distress has been shown to negatively influence academic and research productivity. Evidently, mental health and distress are crucial, yet unexamined, factors that can influence STEM persistence. To address this knowledge gap and improve the representation of graduate WoC in STEM, this project seeks to understand the psychological toll that results from navigating negative STEM environments. It will also identify specific institutional factors that either mitigate or perpetuate the marginalizing encounters that affect graduate WoC’s mental health.
The project employs a two-phase, multi-methodological, longitudinal, and experimental approach grounded in well-established theories from social and counseling psychology. Phase I will obtain rich insights about the contributors and deterrents to STEM graduate WoC’s mental health using three complementary studies: a sequential mixed-methodological nationwide examination of the state of mental health among graduate WoC in STEM (Study 1); and a series of semi-structured critical incident interviews with both current graduate WoC in STEM as well as those who have prematurely discontinued their STEM doctoral pursuits to understand supportive (Study 2) and unsupportive (Study 3) faculty behaviors that affect the respondents’ mental health. Phase II will build on the insights gained in Phase I to design and evaluate an innovative and transformative culturally responsive wellness intervention for graduate WoC (Study 4). The output of this research will serve the following educational goals: (1) cultivate awareness and change among STEM faculty to combat racist and marginalizing encounters; (2) establish a scalable and sustainable restorative wellness program designed to promote graduate WoC’s STEM persistence in a manner that is wholesome, enriching, and centered on thriving; and (3) leverage cross-disciplinary partnerships with counseling professionals to design an innovative and culturally responsive graduate curriculum. This effort will increase our understanding of the ways in which marginalizing STEM encounters negatively affect graduate WoC’s mental health and, in turn, their persistence to degree completion.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.