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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Funding cut for program working to cultivate diversity in Marine Science

Western’s Shannon Point Marine Center was recently praised in American Scientist magazine for its efforts to diversify the field of marine sciences.

However, its chief multicultural program was cut in spring 2015 due to a lack of funding.

The Multicultural Initiative in the Marine Sciences Undergraduate Participation was a 31-credit program offered during winter and spring quarters to provide opportunities to the next generation of diverse marine scientists.

Out of the 199 students who have participated in the national programs since 1990, 20 of them were Western students, Huxley College of the Environment professor Brian Bingham said in an email.

“We took students who were kind of a rough diamond; the ones who really had the capacity but did not have the opportunity,” Bingham said.

When MIMSUP increased in cost to about $275,000 for the 2014-2018 period, the National Science Foundation could no longer fund the program and gave Western two years to find other funding. During the last two years, Western provided tuition waivers, which brought the program cost down to $100,000.

The NSF, which is the primary federal agency supporting science education, fully funded MIMSUP for 23 years, Bingham said.

Bingham said the NSF will continue to fund Western’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program as it is one of the NSF’s flagship programs nationally. He and his staff will be making an effort to incorporate some pieces of MIMSUP into the REU program.

The NSF could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.

MIMSUP started in 1990 when former Shannon Point Marine Center director and professor emeritus Steve Sulkin recognized a lack of minorities in the sciences.

Conversely, the REU program offers marine science research opportunities for six to 10 weeks during the summer, Sulkin said in an email. MIMSUP was created specifically to diversify the field of marine science, whereas the REU program is open to all students.

The program also accepts about eight to 10 students per year and costs about $70,000 to $120,000 per year to run the program, Bingham said.

“I do not agree with NSF’s assessment that REU is an acceptable substitute for MIMSUP,” Sulkin said

While Sulkin said REU programs are excellent and recruit members of racially and ethnically underrepresented students, he said he believes the goals and approaches are entirely different.

“We offered workshops on writing, math, oral presentations and resume building,” he said. “We networked the students with scientists from throughout the country.”

While part of MIMSUP involved students visiting elementary school students in K-12 classrooms once a week, REU does not have the same opportunity over the summer, Sulkin said.

“I must add, however, that while it is disappointing that the NSF decided to end its support for the program, it is hard to be angry with this outcome,” he said. “NSF provided excellent support for 25 years, a remarkable level of funding success in a highly competitive environment.”

The students who were admitted to MIMSUP would probably have a difficult time getting accepted into REU programs, Bingham said.

“The whole goal [of MIMSUP] was to find students who just hadn’t had an opportunity, may not have been top performers, may not have had a great deal of experience already and that typically is the kind of student not compatible for REU,” he said.

Bingham said many students expressed a newfound confidence thanks to the program.

Alumnus Andrés Quesada participated in MIMSUP in 2011 and said he was surprised to be accepted in the first place because he was never an “A” student.

Quesada was working on his bachelor’s degree at the University of Costa Rica when he heard about MIMSUP. He graduated with a master’s degree in environmental science from Huxley this past August and was recently hired as associate director of the Salish Sea Research Center at Northwest Indian College.

“I really didn’t think I was cut out for a master’s program or any graduate degree whatsoever and [MIMSUP] gave me the confidence I needed to pursue my dreams and it gave me the background I needed to achieve those dreams,” he said. “It was a game changer for me.”

Quesada said he wasn’t sure what field he wanted to go into, but MIMSUP cemented his interest in marine biology and marine ecology.

He was sad to hear that the program has ended but knows it made a lasting impact on his and others’ lives, Quesada said.

“My hope is that Western finds a way to fund the program and I don’t think that’s very difficult,” he said.

MIMSUP adopted an important role in bringing minorities into the science community, Quesada said.

“Working here in the United States, you definitely feel underrepresented at conferences and, even though they’re becoming a lot more diverse, for the most part there are a lot of white Americans,” he said. “You just feel a bit out of place.”

Bingham said keeping the program was hard because it was difficult to find a foundation with the money to fund MIMSUP.

“The legacy is in the hands of the nearly 200 students who participated in the program and who have already demonstrated exceptional achievement in a variety of ways,” Sulkin said. “The program also shows what can be done when a dedicated faculty and staff commit to providing exceptional educational opportunities to motivated students.”

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