College of Engineering News Room
USF’S SLOAN UNIVERSITY CENTER OF EXEMPLARY MENTORING
“Where Opportunity and Inclusive Excellence Converge”
Since 2005, the Sloan Minority PhD Initiative has provided $4M to maintain USF’s national leadership in fostering greater diversity in STEM doctoral programs and to support 150 underrepresented students within participating departments in the Colleges of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, and Marine Science. Along with eight NSF Florida-Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (FGLSAMP) Bridge to the Doctorate Activity grants in the same period, USF has received $12M to reimagine the STEM PhD workforce.
The latest research grant ($630,000) continues the Sloan University Center of Exemplary Mentoring’s (UCEM) support of domestic African American/Black, and Hispanic/Latino PhD students. USF is among an elite group of eight universities (MIT, Cornell, Georgia Tech, Duke, Penn State, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and UC San Diego) and the only non-AAU member to receive funding for a UCEM.
“We envision the Center will help institutionalize new faculty mentoring and graduate student success initiatives for the entire university,” said Jose Zayas-Castro, principal investigator and UCEM director, and professor and executive associate dean of the College of Engineering.
At its core, the heart and soul of this graduate inclusive excellence initiative (Sloan UCEM and FGLSAMP BD) has been the success in recognizing and nurturing unrealized potential in students and changing the trajectory of their lives.
Uprooted but undefeated by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans native Deidra Hodges, ’09, and her two children relocated to Florida and began rebuilding their lives. Unable to find employment, Hodges embraced the opportunity to pursue her PhD, focusing on solar energy, a subject that had fascinated her since high school. Working with Chris Ferekides, professor and chair in the Department of Electrical Engineering, she focused her research in the area of solar energy.
A seed grant from the Sloan Scholars Mentoring Network and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, “will enable me to apply for and receive larger grants [NSF, DOE] to support research innovation and career advancement endeavors,” said Hodges, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at University of Texas, at El Paso.
The recruitment of underrepresented minority students in STEM doctoral programs and preparing them for faculty and other leadership positions aligns with USF’s Principles of Community of pursuing inclusive excellence as well as the strategic goals of teaching, research, diversity and inclusion.
“Given the pressing urgency to address issues of systemic racism within academia and the STEM workforce, now more than ever we need to prepare STEM students from historically underrepresented backgrounds as the next generation of problem-solvers, thought-leaders, and faculty role models to help improve societal well-being as a whole, especially among the most vulnerable and underserved,” said Robert Bishop, dean, College of Engineering.
Entrepreneur, educator, engineer, empowerment speaker Quenton Bonds completed his PhD in electrical engineering in 2010 with dissertation work in the area of radio frequency sensor design and development for biomedical sensing applications. He is currently Deputy Engineering Lead and SBIR/STTR Center Co-Lead at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. His work at NASA has focused on the design and development of remote sensors for geoscience and various other space and aircraft applications.
Bonds believes the USF minority graduate fellowship programs clearly distinguishes itself by creating a family environment which breeds success, both personally and professionally.
“They fostered a strong family-type environment within our cohort that was passed down and emulated by succeeding Bridge to the Doctorate cohorts,” he said. “I still apply those ‘lessons learned’ in my current position at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.”
Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, environmental engineering doctoral candidate Kiesha Pierre followed in her sister’s footsteps and immigrated to the United States to pursue an undergraduate education. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Florida Memorial University, she went on to complete her master’s in mathematics from the University of Miami. Pierre taught at Bethune-Cookman University (BCU) in Daytona Beach. Some of her former BCU students, including Anthony Windmon, later enrolled in PhD programs at USF.
Working with Andres Tejada-Martinez, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pierre’s research involves using computational fluid dynamics to study an oxidation ditch, a biological unit treatment process that uses microorganisms to remove organic matter and nitrogen from wastewater.
Pierre is finishing her dissertation and plans to graduate in May 2021. She believes mentoring and community are critical to student success.
“The Sloan program hosted a myriad of workshops that provided professional and personal development,” said Pierre. “The end of semester socials provided me a sense of community. I am grateful to the Sloan UCEM for helping me to successfully navigate this doctoral journey.”
The goal of the Sloan UCEM at USF is to institutionalize best practices in minority graduate student success at USF while also expanding diversity in academia, industry, government, and all other sectors of the nation’s STEM workforce. With 91 graduates, 37 students are in the program and at least 24 additional PhD students will be recruited in engineering, chemistry, physics, and the geosciences by Fall 2023.
Current Sloan scholar Erica Dasi is an environmental engineering doctoral student. For her dissertation, she is researching the application of biological nutrient removal for drinking water and wastewater treatment in small communities. Dasi is advised by Sarina Ergas, professor and graduate program director in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
With a desire of becoming a global change agent, Erica has also participated within internships at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (sponsored by the GEM Consortium) and Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), in Marseille, France (funded by the Chateaubriand Fellowship in STEM) to expand her multidisciplinary research skills and network of mentors.
“I appreciate the diversity that exists in the environmental engineering doctoral program,” said Dasi. “Our department has examples of women and Black faculty who are leading impactful research teams and who have successfully earned the full professor title."
Anthony Windmon, Sloan scholar and PhD graduate in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), completed dissertation research in the area of smart health within the Social Computing Research Lab at USF.
Working with Sriram Chellappan, associate professor in CSE and Ponrathi Athilingam, associate professor in the College of Nursing, Windmon used machine and deep learning algorithms to create systems capable of detecting chronic illnesses such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) based on the sound and intensity of their cough symptoms. COPD and CHF are illnesses which commonly exhibit symptoms of chronic cough as a sign of infection. Plans are underway to apply this research to manage treatment of COVID-19.
“I successfully defended my dissertation in June and I have joined Citibank, N.A, in Tampa, FL, as a senior model analysts/validator and assistant vice president,” Windmon said. “My goal is to continue smart health-care research for the development of novel machine and deep learning techniques that will be used for years to come. Long term, I plan to start my own company, which would allow me to make an impact on underserved communities as an innovator and entrepreneur in the smart health-care field.”
Sloan alumni are making an impact in all sectors solving the grand challenges the country and the world are facing.
As a child, Shamara Collins, ’18, nurtured her youthful aspirations to be an electrical engineer by watching The Magic School Bus. She received her Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Morgan State University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Working under the supervision of Chris Ferekides, professor and chair in the Department of Electrical Engineering at USF, Shamara’s research included the fabrication of dye-synthesized solar cells and the use of photoluminescence to characterize the effects of various fabrication conditions on the defect levels within the energetic diagram of CdTe thin-film solar cells.
Formerly, as an ORISE Science Technology and Policy Fellow in the Solar Energy Technologies at the U.S. Department of Energy, Collins was involved with designing and managing the Solar Collegiate District Challenge, as well as the National Community Solar Partnership. Now as Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of the BEMI Group, she is applying her technical expertise toward practical solutions that affect local communities.
“The fellowship and mentoring programs at USF made a huge difference in my ability to do what I’m doing by providing professional development workshops, visiting minority scientists as role model speakers and external mentors, and providing overall guidance throughout the PhD process beyond the two-year fellowship,” Collins said.
Sloan alumni carry the center's spirit of inclusive excellence to positions in academia and government as well as industry.
Ransford Hyman’s interest in MS-DOS computer games led him down the path of computer engineering. In order to play more graphically advanced games, he had to learn each game’s hardware requirements, which taught him about computer processes and microprocessors when he was still in elementary school.
Hyman (who graduated in 2011) carried this interest in computer hardware through middle and high school, as well as through an undergraduate degree in mathematics at Bethune-Cookman University (BCU) in Daytona Beach. After participating in a summer REU program at USF, he decided to return for his doctoral program in 2006. For his dissertation research, he focused on the reliability and optimization of microprocessors under the late Distinguished University Professor Nagarajan Ranganathan.
For over seven years at Intel, Hyman worked as a senior software technical lead and deep learning software engineering manager. He now works as a subject matter expert within the world of artificial intelligence and its capabilities as a manger for Adobe's AI technology, Adobe Sensei. He also continues to mentor minority students on the West Coast as well as at BCU and USF.
“It’s important as far as inspiring the younger generation to pursue a career in engineering and computer science," he said. "If they see role models who they can identify with pursuing those careers and making change, it gives them the inspiration to also aim higher.”
To facilitate their recruitment, retention, and mentorship, Sloan scholars receive full five-year funding packages plus enhanced professional development funding, either from “top-up" stipends or travel/research funding directly from Sloan or USF.
As additional evidence of the Sloan initiative impact, USF was tied for second among the Highest Research Activity Doctoral Universities for conferring the most PhDs (over 350 degrees) to underrepresented minority students in engineering, computer science, physical sciences, and mathematics from 2010 through 2017, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
In addition to NSF, an essential partner in this success story has been the Florida Education Fund’s McKnight Doctoral Fellowship Program, which has supported over 60 minority PhD students in the College of Engineering with either five-year or one-year dissertation fellowships as well as retention programming. The alumni and current scholars profiled have been McKnight fellows.
As a high priority of President Steve Currall, USF Advancement has launched a new private campaign to provide an endowment that will generate $500,000 per year to institutionalize the program.