Opening the Floodgates for Future STEM Leaders

Funding and support for all students – not just high-achievers at selective institutions – will diversify the PhD pipeline

The evidence is clear: a scientific and medical workforce that reflects the diversity of the people it serves is linked1 to better healthcare access, patient experiences and outcomes for people of color. But achieving this means we first need to create better pathways for more diverse candidates to pursue advanced degrees, including doctorates.

However, decades of effort towards this goal have yielded little change. Black and Latinx people make up 12% and 19% of the U.S. population, respectively, but in 2021, just 5% of doctoral degrees in STEM were awarded to Black candidates, and just 8% to Latinx candidates.3

"When we looked at such a deep and persistent disparity, we realized that we needed to challenge our own assumptions and explore new ways of making change," said Kristin Campbell Reed, Executive Director of the Genentech Foundation.

Many efforts to address this discrepancy have focused on diversifying the doctoral pipelines at elite four-year institutions that have historically served as on-ramps to STEM PhD programs. But those often aren’t the schools that serve underrepresented, low-income and first generation students at scale. Instead, these students are much more likely to attend community colleges, less selective public universities and Minority Serving Institutions.4

Underrepresented students account for more than 50% of enrollment across the California State University (CSU) system5, compared to just one-third of enrollment in the more selective UC system6, which includes UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. With that data in mind, we asked ourselves: What would happen if we shifted our mindset and tried to create new pathways into PhD programs by focusing on the institutions that already reach the communities most underrepresented at the doctoral level?

What would happen if we shifted our mindset and tried to create new pathways into PhD programs by focusing on the institutions that already reach the communities most underrepresented at the doctoral level?

Bridging the PhD Gap

The Genentech Foundation took this question to our longtime grantee San Francisco State University and asked what they would need to prepare more students to successfully earn spots in competitive master’s and PhD programs in STEM. The result of that conversation was a five-year, $10.5 million grant awarded in 2019 to establish the Genentech Foundation Scholars Program, which has supported 130 master's and 392 undergraduate students to date with tuition and stipends, research opportunities, mentorship and wraparound services to help them complete their degrees and transition into doctoral programs.

The MS program has demonstrated that high GPAs — traditionally a baseline requirement for progression into doctoral programs — are not a reliable predictor of success when students receive appropriate support. Among MS scholars who are now successfully pursuing PhDs, nearly half (46%) entered the SF State program with undergraduate GPAs lower than 3.0.

“To avoid overlooking promising candidates, the program takes a different approach to the admissions process. Any SF State student can apply to join the Scholars Program, and admission decisions weigh personal statements and teacher recommendations ahead of applicants’ GPAs,” explained Campbell Reed.

Five years in, the program is helping students succeed at all levels.

  • Undergraduate students in the Genentech Foundation Scholars Program have achieved a four-year graduation rate that is three times higher than students with similar backgrounds at SF State who are not in the program – helping to lower student debt by decreasing time to degree completion for these students.
  • 58% of freshman scholars who enrolled in the program’s inaugural 2019 cohort have matriculated into graduate school – 22% into master’s and 36% into PhD programs, exceeding the national average.7

“Our partnership with the Genentech Foundation has accelerated the expansion of successful training programs preparing our diverse students for exciting graduate programs across the country,” said SF State College of Science & Engineering Dean Carmen Domingo. “Working with Genentech scientists, our faculty are creating innovative curricula that apply machine learning approaches to solve real-world biotech problems. These experiences are making our students uniquely prepared for the biotech workforce needs of the future.”

Uncovering A New Scalable Model

Based on these successes, we believe this approach has the potential to open the floodgates for countless underrepresented students across the nation to pursue PhDs and careers in STEM. That’s why the Genentech Foundation is investing another $14 million in SF State to support students for the next five years. This new funding will help provide a deeper level of support for the Scholars Program, including covering full tuition for freshman and sophomore participants for the first time, and has the potential to benefit hundreds more students as they pursue their undergraduate STEM education and eventually transition into PhD programs.

“We were incredibly excited by how successful SF State has been at fulfilling the aims of the program,” said Campbell Reed. “In light of these outcomes, renewing our funding commitment to support even more students was a clear choice.”

By meeting students in their own communities, we are demonstrating a scalable new model for diversifying the doctoral pipeline: invest in high-enrollment institutions with a large population of underrepresented students and design a program open to all – not just those who are already the top academic achievers.

“Our investment in SF State is paving the way for the next generation of diverse STEM talent in the Bay Area,” said Allen Napetian, Genentech Foundation Board Chair. “By building new pathways into medical education and careers, we’re delivering on Our Promise to serve society and creating a more inclusive future of healthcare that will benefit all patients.”