Women and members of certain minority groups–namely African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans–continue to be underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). While underrepresented minorities (URM) constitute 30 percent of the U.S. population, they only hold 8.9 percent of all STEM doctorate degrees. Their presence is even lower in departments such as physics and astronomy, where URMs hold less than 4 percent of Ph.D.'s nationwide.

URMs face a number of barriers that keep them from earning advanced degrees in these subjects, including lack of academic preparation and financial support.

To help close the equity gap in physics and astronomy, the CSU has joined a state-wide network with the University of California (UC) and the California Community Colleges (CCC) for a program called Cal-Bridge.

"The Cal-Bridge program is designed to provide the mentoring and financial resources they need to help them achieve their dreams of becoming physicists and astronomers," says Alexander Rudolph, a Cal Poly Pomona professor of physics and astronomy, and director of the Cal-Bridge program.

Comprised of 16 CSUs, nine UCs and more than 40 CCCs, Cal-Bridge's mission is to increase diversity in physics and astronomy doctoral programs. The program identifies CSU students from underrepresented groups who display strong academic potential and provides them with the necessary support to successfully matriculate to a Ph.D. program, targeted at the UC campuses in the Cal-Bridge network. Scholars are supported for three years, beginning their junior year and lasting through their first year of grad school. CCC students must transfer to a participating CSU to join the program.

Cal-Bridge is built on four key elements that help students overcome barriers to a Ph.D.:

  • Financial Support: Once selected, Cal-Bridge scholars benefit from full financial aid of up to $10,000 per year, covering the cost of tuition and room and board, which enables students to work less and focus on their studies.
  • Intensive joint mentorship: Every Cal-Bridge scholar is assigned two mentors–one from a CSU campus and another from a UC campus. Scholars receive dual mentorship on a biweekly basis to help navigate their way to a doctoral program.

    "Growing up, my interest in science and math went largely unsupported by my family and I was unsure of what careers I could have with a degree in STEM," said Katy Rodriguez Wimberly, physics graduate student at UC Irvine and former Cal-Bridge Scholar.

    "The mentorship I received from CSU and UC faculty was so eye-opening and inspiring! My mentors worked very closely with me, providing writing tips and direct science guidance on my research proposal."
  • Professional development: Scholars receive extensive professional development and in-person workshops that allow them to interact and grow with one another in the program.

    "I gained the tools and insights on how to transition from undergrad to a research-focused graduate," says Wimberly. "The relationships I built and the events I participated in demystified academia for me and, as a result, I feel confident in my growing skills as an astronomy researcher."
  • Summer research: Scholars who participate in the summer research program work on authentic research projects at one of the many world-class research institutions in the network. They have opportunities to present the results at regional and national scientific conferences.

Since Cal-Bridge's launch four years ago, 18 of the 20 scholars from the first three cohorts have been accepted to a Ph.D. program directly from a CSU and two are in master's-to-Ph.D. bridge programs. Five students received the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship award, while three received honorable mentions. The fourth cohort will be applying to Ph.D. programs later this year.

A recent $5 million grant by the NSF allows Cal-Bridge to expand its number of scholars from about a dozen per year in Southern California to as many as 50 statewide. The program welcomed 25 scholars for its fifth cohort last fall.

For more information on Cal-Bridge, visit https://www.cpp.edu/~sci/physics-astronomy/research/cal-bridge.shtml.