Mellon Mays program cultivates diverse future scholars

Jan. 23, 2014 noon
Mellon Mays index

Photo by David Kelly Crow for the Office of Communications

Mellon Mays McKay

Photo by David Kelly Crow for the Office of Communications

Princeton University senior Edwin Carbajal has always been a diligent student, but it was through the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship that he became a dedicated scholar.

Carbajal is one of 11 current Princeton undergraduates participating in the national program. By encouraging underrepresented and other students to pursue a career in academia, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) aims to increase the diversity of faculty at colleges and universities across the country.

"Mellon Mays has enhanced my passion for research and academia, and offered me incredible opportunities to grow as a person and specialist in my field," said Carbajal, an ecology and evolutionary biology major.

Mellon Mays Diaz

Senior Estela Diaz (right) talks regularly with her Mellon Mays mentor, Jessica Delgado (left), an assistant professor of religion, for advice on navigating the journey from undergraduate student to graduate student to professor. Diaz said the career guidance from Delgado has been invaluable. (Photo by Amaris Hardy, Office of Communications)

The program has allowed Carbajal to learn firsthand what it means to be a professional scholar through lab work, field studies, conferences and collaborations with his faculty mentor, Andrea Graham.

"Mellon Mays has allowed Edwin to be broad and deep in his own studies, as well as to have the flexibility and opportunity to see scientists at work in a way that I think is very rare for undergraduates to witness," said Graham, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Mellon Mays program facilitates funding for undergraduate research and graduate school studies that prepare students for professorial careers. Fellows may take advantage of professional development programs, career networks and other resources during their academic journeys.

Fellowships are available to students at 42 colleges and universities across the United States and in South Africa, as well as students selected from a consortium of 39 historically black colleges and universities.

"The institutions that are involved in this program are integrally part of the conversation about what it means to diversify the professoriate and to ensure students' success in completing what we know is a very hard thing to do — earning a doctoral degree," said Armando Bengochea, the Mellon Foundation's director of the MMUF program and a graduate alumnus of Princeton.

Princeton President Emeritus William G. Bowen led the Mellon Foundation when the fellowship was established in the 1988-89 academic year, and Princeton was among the first schools to participate. Since then, 127 Princetonians have been selected as Mellon Mays fellows.

"Given the underrepresentation of minority faculty, it is important for Princeton to encourage students interested in academic careers to consider this path with seriousness," said Associate Dean of the College Diane McKay, who coordinates Princeton's MMUF program with Judith Weisenfeld, a professor of religion.

Mellon Mays class

Carbajal (third from right) and Graham (second from right) listen to a presentation during Graham's recent lab group meeting with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Carbajal has been able to work in Graham's lab and attend scientific conferences while a Mellon Mays fellow. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

Students may apply for the fellowship at the end of their sophomore year. The Office of the Dean of the College will hold an information session for interested sophomores at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 4, in West College, Room 111.

While the program's focus is to support students of color, anyone with a demonstrated commitment to promoting diverse learning experiences in higher education is welcome to apply. Mellon Mays offers funding for students studying a designated set of fields in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

"Princeton students' participation in Mellon Mays will help lead to a more diverse pool of future faculty members at universities across the country," McKay said.

Nearly 700 Mellon Mays fellows are enrolled in doctoral programs, according to Bengochea. Several hundred former fellows are now teaching at schools across the country, including many Princeton alumni.

Class of 1992 graduate Maurice Stevens, an associate professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University, credits the fellowship with establishing his identity as an academic.

"By taking myself and other students of color seriously as scholars, the Mellon Mays program allowed me to develop tremendously while at Princeton. This made it possible for me to go on and succeed in graduate school," Stevens said. "My continued contact with other fellows has contributed to my career and scholarly development to an immeasurable degree."

Mentorship and support

A keystone of the Mellon Mays program at Princeton is mentorship. Each undergraduate fellow has a faculty mentor who provides insight into life as a professor.

"You can't underestimate the importance of one-on-one mentorship," said Assistant Professor of Religion Jessica Delgado, who mentors Mellon Mays fellow Estela Diaz.

Diaz, a senior sociology major, said her relationship with Delgado goes beyond a typical advising role. Princeton students may select their own mentor, who does not need to be in the same academic department as their major.

Mellon Mays Weisenfeld

Professor of Religion Judith Weisenfeld (left), co-coordinator of Princeton's Mellon Mays program, congratulates Prachi Parihar (right) at a dinner last spring for Mellon Mays fellows. Parihar, a Class of 2013 graduate, is now a doctoral candidate in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. (Photo by David Kelly Crow for the Office of Communications)

"My parents are from Mexico and they didn't go to high school," Diaz said. "I did not have much perspective [growing up] about what it really means to go to graduate school. A lot of my conversations with Professor Delgado are very free form. I learned about her journey to becoming a professor. We talk about how you get into graduate school and look for a job afterward, work-life balance issues or submitting papers to journals."

Diaz said the practical career advice from Delgado complements the research-focused guidance from her senior thesis adviser, Paul Willis, a lecturer with the rank of professor in sociology. Diaz's thesis examines gender identity development in preschools based on her observations of schools in New Jersey and Sweden.

"Because Princeton already requires undergraduates to conduct independent research, Mellon Mays mentors and fellows here have the flexibility to go beyond specific academic interests," Diaz said.

Delgado said she hopes to be an advocate for Diaz long after she graduates from Princeton.

"The transition from undergraduate to graduate school can be really challenging for anybody, and there are a lot of tools I can give Estela based on my experience," Delgado said. "Becoming a professor is not just about being intellectual. Like any career, you have to develop certain skills and knowledge to help you navigate and succeed in the profession."

For Carbajal, the Mellon Mays program has afforded opportunities that may have otherwise been out of reach. Carbajal's interests are in immunology and infectious diseases, and his senior thesis examines predictors of the Hantavirus infection in deer mice.

With funding from Mellon Mays and guidance from Graham and her collaborators, Carbajal has spent a summer conducting field research at the Mountain Lake Biological Station in Virginia; attended the annual Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease Conference at Pennsylvania State University; and presented work at an undergraduate research conference in Tennessee sponsored by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS).

"It has been absolutely incredible to make connections with other scientists and professors in my field," Carbajal said. "I presented some of my research at a conference poster session and people would walk by and provide me with valuable feedback."

Graham said she thinks Carbajal's completed thesis research could become one, or even two, published papers.

"That is the kind of scientific output that graduate schools will look for and others will look for on his CV for the rest of his career," she said.

On campus, Carbajal is among the undergraduates who work in Graham's lab. He also attends her weekly lab group meetings with postdoctoral fellows and graduate students.

"As someone who intends to stay in academia, it's been great for Edwin to see how science is really practiced," Graham said. "It's via informal, collegial and often messy conversations that researchers often figure out how to solve a problem."

Carbajal and Diaz said they plan to apply to doctoral programs in their fields within the next two years.

Mellon Mays dinner

Some of the graduating and incoming Mellon Mays fellows gather at a dinner on campus last spring. Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Mellon Mays program offers fellowships to students at participating colleges and universities across the United States and in South Africa. (Photo by David Kelly Crow for the Office of Communications)

'Part of a family'

In addition to their individual work, Mellon Mays fellows at Princeton meet for monthly programs on topics such as applying to graduate school or for postgraduate fellowships. The program also offers funding for students to attend the Mellon Mays' regional conference, where undergraduates network with other students, present papers and attend workshops.

"It was amazing to meet with other fellows every month and share our experiences. I learned so much from them," said Prachi Parihar, a Class of 2013 graduate and first-year doctoral candidate in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.

Class of 1997 graduate Gene Andrew Jarrett, professor and chair of the Department of English at Boston University, continues to participate in Mellon Mays conferences and networking events.

"The professional relationships I established as an undergraduate through Mellon Mays have persisted for decades," Jarrett said.

During the summer, Mellon Mays also supports undergraduates to conduct research, study abroad or take classes. Fellows may attend the MMUF Summer Research Training Program at the University of Chicago. The nine-week program focuses on the academic, social and practical skills needed to pursue a career in the academy.

"It was 15 to 20 undergraduates from different schools coming together as colleagues. We were reading each other's work, giving each other ideas and suggesting other readings," said Diaz, who attended the Chicago program this past summer. "At the same time, we were sharing our own insecurities about what it means to be a student of color pursuing an academic career."

Diaz was so inspired by her experience that she organizes tea talks on campus where students can share personal stories and build a community they may rely on well into the future.

"You constantly meet other Mellon fellows while working in the academy," said Class of 2005 graduate Theri Pickens, an assistant professor of English at Bates College. "Being a Mellon is like being part of a family — you have that connection for life."