Problem: Low retention of PEER students between beginning of undergraduate and graduation (~50% loss)
Approach: Support experienced undergraduate PEER students in broader career development through ABRCMS attendance, CV/resume preparation workshops, & seminar series
Approach: Get early undergraduate PEER students into research labs and connected with the PEER community
PEER Graduate Student Mentors
Goal: Promote retention of PEER students in STEM
About the PEER Program
To achieve race and ethnicity parity in the STEM workforce within the United States, the current rate of change provides estimates that it would take over 100 years to be fully representative of the current US population  and importantly the US population is continuing to become more diverse and, therefore, 100 years is likely an underestimate. Currently, Persons Excluded because of their Ethnicity or Race (PEERs) represent ~20% of students entering Universities in the United States . Our estimates indicate that within the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, we have approximately this population of students entering the first year introductory biology courses for our undergraduate majors. However, when looking at students who continue in one of our majors, our preliminary analysis performed in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Data Team estimate that these numbers decrease by ~50%, resulting in ~9% of our graduating class to be composed of PEER students. These numbers within our Department are in line with national studies that demonstrate a 50% loss in PEER students retained across STEM .
Undergraduate research is a high-impact experience with benefits reaching far outside the lab: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, perseverance, increased self-confidence, as well as increased retention within STEM [4,5]. We want all students to be supported in exploring this pursuit within our community, yet our analysis suggests that less than 6% of students doing biological research for credit across the University of Pittsburgh are PEERs. The statistics presented both for student graduation and researcher identity paint a clear picture that we need to prioritize retention of PEER students within STEM. Indeed, a recent study has shown that STEM fields generate unique racial and ethnic gaps in student persistence relative to non-STEM majors . As the largest undergraduate Department at the University of Pittsburgh, we want to be effective and supportive in recruiting, retaining, and successfully preparing our diverse student population for positions within STEM after their undergraduate tenure.
To address this, we have developed the Promoting PEERs mentoring program which launched in 2020 and has been supported by the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, Burroughs Wellcome Fund for career guidance, and the University of Pittsburgh SEED funding mechanisms. This is a tiered mentoring program where faculty, graduate students, and experienced undergraduates work together with more junior undergraduate students in a community with the goal of mentoring and supporting students toward their career goal, including getting involved in research.
The program has two arms: undergraduate students who are already within research labs and undergraduate students who are not within research labs. For students within research labs (undergraduate mentors), our team of graduate students and faculty work with these mentors to prepare for attendance to ABRCMS (including abstract and poster preparation, conference networking skills and more), financially support attendance and presentation at ABRCMS, build career plans, work on CVs and more. Furthermore, we work with undergraduate mentors in becoming mentors for more inexperienced undergraduate students, interested in research. For undergraduate students not in research labs, we use our full tiered mentoring group to learn about research life, work on career planning, and, if research is in line with career goals, work together with students to enter a research lab. Our community is built around supporting PEERs to enhance undergraduate experiences and promote career goals.