Black and Hispanic people collectively make up 28 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only account for 17 percent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers. This lack of representation starts in the education system, where fewer than one in five STEM graduates are Black or Hispanic.
Stony Brook University’s Simons STEM Scholars (SSS) Program, introduced in May 2022, aims to support underrepresented STEM students in their academic and professional pursuits.
Executive Director Erwin Cabrera and his staff are preparing to welcome 30 incoming freshmen to the SSS program’s first-ever cohort of scholars, narrowing down the inaugural class from a group of about 800 high-achieving applicants. Most of the candidates are New York residents, but some live as far away as Honolulu, Hawaii.
Selection weekend — where the Simons STEM faculty interviewed the first batch of potential members — took place February 18-19. A second round followed a week later, which started in New York City before prospects were bussed to campus, and a fully remote round was conducted the weekend of March 4.
“It is our responsibility to empower our students to use their STEM prowess to affect the communities they’re from,” Cabrera said. “And these students are the best of the best — they’re choosing us over Ivy League schools.”
Once the first class of scholars is established, the SSS Program will commence with a six-week Summer Bridge Program designed to help prepare students for their collegiate and professional careers. Scholars will reside on campus throughout the program, getting a true taste of dorm life at Stony Brook.
“It will be a combination of writing and math classes, interactive activities, mental health talks, scientific research, community building and a few exciting off-campus trips,” said Natasha McCombs, academic advisor and Summer Bridge coordinator. “So it’ll be a fun six weeks.”
After Summer Bridge, scholars will have two weeks off before they start their first semester at Stony Brook. The SSS Program provides members with full scholarships, programmatic support, academic advising and tutoring — all funded by the Simons Foundation.
“The essence of this program is to support students from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM towards the PhD or MD-PhD pathway,” said Brady Brick, coordinator of recruitment, special events and family outreach.
Simons STEM Scholars are encouraged to pursue their postgraduate degrees at any institution of their choice. Even if they leave Stony Brook, Cabrera and his team members want students to know they’ll always have a home at the university.
“It is so important to see people who look like you, who think like you, who are from the places you’re from, because when you leave this space, you’ll likely be the only one in your graduate program,” Cabrera said. With the help of a dedicated staff and an immersive four-year program, Simons STEM Scholars will go on to advance their respective industries and promote diversity from within.
“They need to be asking questions from their community and their lens,” Cabrera said. “That’s the only way we can bring society forward — if we allow them to do so. And so all of our team is here to help bring that culture to the forefront.”
Cabrera was a Meyerhoff Scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) as an undergraduate, having participated in the program that serves as a model for the one he’s pioneering now.
“As one of the only alumni in the nation who’s leading this, I feel compelled to make sure the experience that was given to myself and my peers — essentially my academic family — is translated over to these students,” Cabrera said.
The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC welcomed its first class of scholars in 1989. Cabrera joined the program in 2006 and graduated from the university in 2010. Meyerhoff staff helped with the interviews during the selection weekends.
“What makes this program so wonderful — so perfect, if there is such a thing — is Dr. Cabrera,” said Executive Assistant Marie-Line Lubin. “I wouldn’t have gone into this with somebody who’s trying to throw it to the wall and see if it sticks — he’s been there, he’s done it. Those students are going to be the luckiest kids in the world because they’ll have him.”
Get to know the new colleagues who make the Simons STEM Scholars team a family.
— Sabrina Liguori