5 questions with UNI professor Doug Mupasiri

Doug Mupasiri has a voice that seems ideal for a professor. It’s booming and resonant, the type that can fill every corner of a lecture hall. The UNI mathematics department head is putting it to use advocating for the inclusion of more minorities in STEM fields, where black and Hispanics have been woefully underrepresented. Last month, UNI hosted a regional conference aimed at encouraging diverse students to consider a career in science, technology, engineering or math. In this conversation, Mupasiri talks about why minorities are underrepresented in STEM, what UNI is doing to address the issue and the societal value in ensuring these fields are more diverse.

Why is there a lack of minorities in STEM fields?

Part of it has to do with accessibility of STEM to minority groups. One way most people get into STEM is because they know somebody, or they went to a school where they had an introduction to STEM courses. They were exposed to uses of STEM disciplines at a reasonably young age. And they have the educational background that sets them up to do STEM disciplines in college. 

When minorities come to college, most minorities have gone to schools where STEM was not emphasized, so they don't have access to it. By the time they get to a place like UNI, it’s not something that is within their range of possibilities to even consider. If you’re going to pursue a STEM degree at UNI and you come in here as a freshmen and haven’t had a serious lab, it’s a real shock. They have not seen anything like that. 

The other thing is a lack of role models. There aren’t many role models for minorities in STEM that will enable them visualize themselves as someone who can contribute to the discipline. That’s something many minorities report. In many STEM classes they take, they’re often the only minority student there. That puts people off. They don’t have people they feel they can naturally form groups with. It feels lonely for them.

It seems like many of the barriers for minority students in STEM fields exist before they get to college. What are some ways to address these issues in elementary and middle schools?

One of the things UNI can do is be visible in the schools. But maybe even simpler than that is inviting kids to UNI and have them visit labs where professors are doing experiments. That’s a great way to introduce kids to STEM. One of things we do is our summer camps. Young students participate in these and are introduced to real science. These are the sorts of things UNI can do in a big way, because a lot of the things we do have to do are focused around education. We have professors here who are trained on how to communicate with kids. We are a natural place to do these sorts of activities. That won’t solve the national problem, but it can solve the local problem.

What are some of the ways UNI works to help these students once they get to college?

For the past eight years, we’ve received a grant from the National Science Foundation with the goal of increasing the number of minority students who graduate with degrees in STEM discipline and go to graduate school. The UNI portion this time around is almost $180,000. Most of that grant is for student services. We meet with a group of minority students once a month to find out what’s going on in their classrooms. If they're struggling with upper level courses, we can find a tutor for them, and the grant will pay for it. Or the grant will pay for students to take courses to prepare them for the GREs. This year, we have 12 students in the program.

We also provide emotional support. Some of these kids are first-generation college students. This is not something they can go home and talk to their parents about. Every time they run into some problem, they think it’s just happening to them, that there’s something wrong with them. They do poorly on a quiz and the sky is falling. Part of the support we provide is to let them know that this happens to most students, it’s normal and natural. We don’t say ignore it, we encourage them to sit and figure out what they can do to fix it. So, we are always giving these students emotional support.

Why are you so passionate about this issue?

Because I know it makes a difference. Part of it is my own upbringing. My grandfather was a pastor and he built his school. He thoroughly believed in education and how it can change lives by opening up opportunities for people. My mother was an educator. To me, the satisfaction is seeing these students leave this place and going out there and leading productive lives doing something they might not have imagined before. The great thing is that the kids really appreciate it. Once they realize that you really, really care about their success, they give you back more than you could imagine. This is something I totally believe in. 

What is the benefit of increasing minority participation in STEM fields? 

In this global economy that we now face, the country cannot afford to have people with talent who are just wasting away. Every talent that is out there should be tapped and put to good use. The other thing is that there are employers in Iowa who have a real issue finding people to fill the jobs they have, and it is worse in STEM. These companies have to go overseas to find people to work for them.

There is also a benefit to bringing in a diversity of opinions. People coming in from the outside bring in perspective that people on the inside might not have. Opening up these opportunities to groups who are not generally represented brings fresh ideas, things that people may not have thought of.

The benefit to me is that you can tap all the talent that is available. The problems that we will be facing are challenging. We will need all the manpower that we can marshal to solve those problems. Bringing in as many people as possible is something everybody should be interested in doing.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.