UTEP awarded $248k grant; Will help study how research mentorships influence future student diversity

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Danielle Xiaodan Morales, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology, will lead an interdisciplinary research team to study the effect of race, gender, socio-economic status and other factors on the development of future STEM researchers. Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – Recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a four-year, $248,000 grant to The University of Texas at El Paso to study how different undergraduate/mentor research partnerships influence future diversity in STEM scholars.

Assistant Professor of Sociology Danielle Xiaodan Morales, Ph.D., the principal investigator, is among the researchers who will explore collaborations where students and mentors do and do not share the same race, gender or socio-economic status, and record the influence that has on the undergraduates.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is the national research host.

According to UTEP, Dr. Morales’ past studies have shown that mentored undergraduate research experiences are effective to increase the number of minority students who want to pursue graduate programs and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research careers. Since women and other minorities remain underrepresented in the professoriate, the mentors often have different backgrounds from the undergraduates.

University officials say this will be the most comprehensive study of its type that Morales has undertaken in the past five years. Her initial research focused on gender. She followed that with a study that also involved ethnicity and other demographics.

She said her previous studies, many of which have been published in peer-reviewed journals, as well as those done by others, have shown pros and cons of working with mentors from the same or different backgrounds. Similar backgrounds adds a level of comfort and creates a “role model” effect. Different upbringings give students a chance to work with people from diverse backgrounds. Data from a third research group found that differences of race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic status does not matter if the mentor has good mentoring skills.

“We want to fill this gap in the literature,” Morales said. “This project will give us the opportunity to look through different (areas) – social class, ethnicity. It definitely will be a next step for my research.”

Morales’ initial research on this topic as the principal investigator was as a postdoctoral fellow with BUILDing SCHOLARS. She praised the program and its director, Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., for how both influenced her research interests in mentorship.

Echegoyen, research associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI), said Morales’ mentorship research is necessary to understand better how nuances such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation as well as socioeconomic and first-generation status affect mentor-mentee relationships.

“The results will lead to information on best mentoring practices and mentor training needs to ensure student success as we continue to pursue an increase in STEM workforce diversity,” Echegoyen said.

According to Morales, she will use the next few months to build her research team, recruit participants and refine the research questions.

She added that she plans to hire two UTEP graduate students and two undergraduates to assist her. At the same time, she will work with faculty collaborators from the University of Utah, who also have promised to hire some UTEP students to help with the research.

The Utah collaborators are former UTEP faculty members Sara Grineski, Ph.D., professor of sociology and environmental studies, and Tim Collins, Ph.D., professor of geography.

Morales’ study, “Collaborative Research: Effects of Mentoring Relationship Heterogeneity on Student Outcomes Among NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates,” will begin during the summer of 2022.

To learn more about UTEP and their programs, click here.

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