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Science & Technology - Campus & Community

National Program Helps Drexel Bridge the Representation Gap for STEM PhDs

July 31, 2019

Matthew Shirley started his biomedical engineering PhD at Drexel’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems through the Bridge to the Doctorate (BTD) Fellowship program.

It’s rare that you’ll find Matthew Shirley taking sole credit for his many accomplishments so far in life.

“If there is one fault that my mentors told me growing up, it’s that I’m too modest,” said the second-year Drexel University PhD student. “You are the product of all your influences in life, so I feel like if you take sole credit for something that happens to you, you're discrediting all the things or all the people that really got you there.”

A native of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Shirley credits his distinguished high school for giving him the drive to become accepted into the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), which aims to increase diversity among future leaders in science, technology, engineering and related fields. He then credits Meyerhoff, which is funded in part by National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program (LSAMP), with leading him to the opportunity to start his biomedical engineering PhD at Drexel’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems through the Bridge to the Doctorate (BTD) Fellowship program.

Mention of his summers in undergrad spent doing research and the countless networking opportunities he made for himself shouldn’t be an afterthought in his origin story, but what truly matters now — and what Bridge to the Doctorate supports — is passing his candidacy and bringing his thesis to fruition in pursuit of his terminal degree. And there’s no better place for Shirley to do that than at Drexel.

“Drexel was one of my top choices for a variety of reasons: just the history of innovation here at Drexel, the city itself, the fact that my mentor is doing research specifically in an area that I was very interested in,” Shirley said. “Basically, taking all those into account, I was like, ‘Wow, Drexel would be a great place,’ and luckily this opportunity became available to me through the Bridge to the Doctorate Program.”

Shirley feels lucky to be at Drexel because of the cyclical nature of the Bridge to the Doctorate program. Drexel has hosted four cohorts of BTD over the last 15 years, as new cohorts usually start at just one of five Philadelphia-area institutions annually. It just so happened that the fourth and most recent cohort was coming to Drexel when Shirley started his PhD in 2017. Like the LSAMP program he took part in as an undergraduate, BTD is also funded by the NSF, and provides tuition, fees, an annual stipend of $32,000, mentorship and professional development for two years as students from underrepresented populations in STEM graduate programs get started on their paths to PhDs. And to be eligible for Bridge to the Doctorate, students have to participate in LSAMP as undergraduates. 

“It’s a pipeline type of program where it’s like, ‘OK great, we worked with these [undergraduate] students as part of LSAMP. Now what? Now what more can we do for them?’” said Marisol Rodriguez Mergenthal, director of the LSAMP program at Drexel as part of Enrollment Management & Student Success, of BTD. “That’s what the Bridge to the Doctorate program attempts to do, is to give them that exposure to advanced study and incentivizing some to go into the professoriate so that they’re role modeling and mentoring for younger generations. Others decide to go into private industry or government institutions that do research.”

The approximately 700 institutions that support LSAMP programs are clustered into 40+ alliances, Rodriguez Mergenthal said, and out of nine institutions in the Greater Philadelphia Alliance, only five regional institutions have carried Bridge to the Doctorate: Drexel, Temple University, University of Delaware, Delaware State University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (which recently shifted to the Garden State LSAMP Alliance).

Students like Shirley find out in undergrad about BTD opportunities at various institutions through an LSAMP communications network. That’s how Drexel has come to host four Bridge to the Doctorate cohorts since 2005, comprised of STEM students from across the country. 

Rodriguez Mergenthal said it is not necessarily an easy task to fill the 12 slots that become available with each cohort of BTD.

“Finding a student who is really committed to getting the PhD is half the battle,” she said. “BTD students must also weigh the costs and benefits of stepping away from the workforce and possibly making other sacrifices in order to dedicate themselves to a doctoral degree.”

Matthew Shirley's thesis research revolves around his research in formulating and developing micro-scale ultrasound contrast agents for targeted drug delivery in cancer therapy. Shirley himself considered going into industry upon completing his undergraduate degree, like getting a lab tech or research assistantship position. But when he found out about everything that Bridge to the Doctorate had to offer, he knew it was too good to pass up.

“I always just thought to myself, if I would have applied and became a lab tech, I would have potentially just been gathering up my experience to hopefully do what I'm already doing right now,” he said.

What Shirley is doing right now is preparing for candidacy by building up his thesis proposal, which revolves around his research in formulating and developing micro-scale ultrasound contrast agents for targeted drug delivery in cancer therapy. He is working with Margaret Wheatley, PhD, John M. Reid Professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. Her mentorship — another key offering of the BTD Program — has provided Shirley with overwhelming support.

“Sometimes I feel like maybe I’m not doing the best, and she comes in and she’s always like, ‘Listen, you’re doing fine. You’re moving at your own pace and that’s good. I’m here to support you in whatever that is.” So I love her for that,” Shirley said.

For the first few terms when he first started at Drexel, Wheatley encouraged Shirley to focus on classes and shadowing in the lab. But at the beginning of his second year, it was time to start contributing with his own research proposal which also aided him with this next phase of his PhD path as his Bridge to the Doctorate aid comes to a close. After a grueling preparation process, Shirley submitted his application for and was awarded the highly competitive NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Beyond receiving this distinction, the fellowship will also financially support him throughout the completion of his degree. 

“That was a huge whirlwind,” Shirley said of receiving this nationally sought fellowship. “I was just like, ‘Wow, I really can't emphasize enough how life changing it is.’ But then it’s one of those things where that imposter syndrome kicks in. It’s like, ‘Am I supposed to be here? Is this meant for me? What am I doing here? You don’t really see people that look like us, especially in top-tier institutions.’”

Securing a new source of funding after the two-year BTD fellowship as Shirley did can be a tough transition for some students, Rodriguez Mergenthal said, but the program offers professional development and connections with campus partners such as the Graduate College, University Libraries and the Fellowships Office to help students navigate these challenges and connect to invaluable resources.

One of the most important things BTD helps establish is a community to alleviate those imposter syndrome-like feelings, both Shirley and Rodriguez Mergenthal agree.

After a grueling preparation process, Matthew Shirley submitted his application for and was awarded the highly competitive NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Beyond receiving this distinction, the fellowship will also financially support him throughout the completion of his degree.Shirley said he appreciated the fact that his cohort was brought together to meet soon after arriving to Drexel, and now when he’s walking around campus, he can see someone from the cohort and know that there are others around that share his experience.

“One of the things, not just at Drexel but graduate school in general, is it just can feel really isolated,” he said. “So I appreciate the fact that, once it was solidified, they got us together just to see that we did have a community, a community that we could reach out to [to say], ‘Oh hey, how’s it going?’ or ‘How are you dealing with the struggles that I know we’re all dealing with right now?’ So it's great in that aspect.”

“That’s one of the very valuable aspects of the program versus a student who is coming in independently and doesn’t really have a cohort,” added Rodriguez Mergenthal. “That can be tough, finding out, ‘Who can be a part of my network? Who can I trust?’ With programs like Bridge to the Doctorate, it’s nice to have that community component or that cohort component because it gives you a network to start with.”

Shirley will start receiving funding from his new NSF grant in September, and soon after that he plans to pass his candidacy and will also present at the upcoming Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Meeting at the Philadelphia Convention Center in October.

He’s looking forward to mentoring forthcoming Bridge to the Doctorate cohorts and candidates, and would implore any eligible students or faculty mentors to get involved with the program and help further its mission for greater representation in STEM.

“There's still much work to be done and there's still a lot more people needed to hopefully achieve those goals,” he said.

Drexel students or faculty/staff who would like to know more or get involved with the Bridge to the Doctorate program can reach out to Rodriguez Mergenthal at 215.895.1641 or mr444@drexel.edu.