Montana State University

MSU-based study finds underrepresented students study science if they believe it helps their community

January 22, 2015 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Jessi L. Smith is the principal investigator of a study conducted at MSU, several Montana tribal colleges, and California State University, Long Beach, that found students from underrepresented groups are more likely to pursue scientific or research careers in biosciences if they believe the careers are aligned with cultural values and will in some way help give back to their home communities. The paper was co-written by Elizabeth R. Brown, then of MSU psychology, and Allen G. Harmsen, MSU microbiology and immunology, as well as two scientists from Cal State, Long Beach, and was published in the January issue of the journal BioScience. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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A study conducted by a group of scientists at Montana State University and California State University, Long Beach, has found that students from underrepresented minority groups are more likely to pursue scientific or research careers in biosciences if they believe the careers will in some way help them give back to their home communities.

The study, “The Role of Altruistic Values in Motivating Underrepresented Minority Students for Biomedicine,” was published in the January issue of the journal BioScience. Co-authors were Jessi L. Smith and Elizabeth R. Brown, both then researchers with the MSU Department of Psychology, Allen G. Harmsen, a research scientist affiliated with the MSU Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and Andrew Z. Mason and Dustin B. Thoman of California State University, Long Beach. Thoman is with the Department of Psychology and Mason with the Department of Biological Sciences.

Smith, who was the principal investigator of the study, will co-present the research with Thoman at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in February.

“Scientific research has a reputation as all about the ‘Ah Ha’ moment, to discover something for the sake of wanting to know the answer,” Smith said. “While certainly that is important, if that discovery has implications in some way for benefiting society – however remote – than this captures and holds students interest. Science is very much a field that has broad impact, but too often students don’t see this connection.”

The study grew out of a nearly $1 million, four-year grant that Smith received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study Latino and Native American student research assistants and their persistence within biomedicine. Smith said the grant, which is now in its last year, sought to examine how Latino and Native American undergraduates’ perceived levels of cultural connection to research influenced their motivation, or lack of motivation, to pursue biomedical careers and graduate study. This is important, Smith said, because “understanding how to enhance the diversity of the biomedical field is paramount to the success and health of the nation and the world.”

She added that this type of research is needed because of the dearth of scientists with ethnically diverse backgrounds. Data from the National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resource Statistics, shows that of among the 597,000 college graduates employed in biological life/ medical sciences fields in 2010, only 0.2 percent were American Indian, 2.7 percent were African-American and 4.9 percent were Latino. Conversely, 70.9 percent where White, 19.4 percent Asian. An additional 1.5 percent reported multiple race background.

Early in the study’s process Smith and Thoman, both trained psychologists, sought the advice of Harmsen and Mason, both biomedical scientists.

The research team speculated that students who belong to groups considered underrepresented minorities in the sciences, such as Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans, would be more likely to be interested in bioscience as a career if mentors linked the work they did in the laboratory to the students’ cultural values. Likewise, they would be positively motivated if they believed their biomedical career would help give back to their communities, which is what the authors call an “altruistic” motivation. They also speculated that the students would be more motivated for altruistic values than by such things as potential income earned.

“We predicted that seeing how research can potentially affect society and help one's community would not replace typical motives for scientific discovery, such as passion, curiosity, achievement, which are important for all students,” Smith said. “But, altruistic value might be more important in the scheme of things.” 

To test their theories, they studied research assistants working with more than 30 bioscience faculty members at several tribal colleges in Montana and two universities by asking students to answer a series of questionnaires over two years. A control group of White students answered the same questionnaires.

Smith’s group discovered that the research assistants from underrepresented minority groups who saw the altruistic values of conducting biomedical research that would benefit their community felt more involved with their research over time, which, ultimately enhanced their interest in pursuing a scientific research career.

“Everyone benefits from seeing the altruistic benefits of their work,” Smith said. “But, these altruistic motives are uniquely influential to students (with ethnic minority heritage) and appear to play an important role in influencing their interest in scientific research careers and in pursing advanced graduate education.”

She said the findings point to simple strategies for educators, training directors and faculty mentors to improve retention among undergraduate students from underrepresented minorities in biomedicine and the related sciences.

“Mentors can spend time in lab meetings, for example, communicating with students or assigning students to projects that help them to identify the societal or communal benefits of their laboratory experiences in a personal and culturally meaningful way,” Smith said. “Our intervention data show such assignments help everyone – majority students, women, underrepresented people – everyone, to want to pursue and persist in science.”

This study, and our other data resulting from this grant are particularly important, Smith said, because they indicate that such recruitment and retention efforts required no additional money, just recognition that a personal investment in a student and support for his or her cultural values can be meaningful and make a difference.

“Even if the work a scientist is doing won’t directly cure cancer, somewhere down the road, that research likely has implications for some society benefit,” Smith said. “When scientists write grants they often must address the broad impact or the translational value of the work in order to get funded with taxpayer dollars. Our results suggest that sharing those possible down-the-road impacts with students will go a long way in holding their interest.”

"Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks in developing programs to prepare and train young people to pursue a scientific research career is to identify and understand what leads them to persist in a program despite the associated challenges and difficulties," said Michael Sesma of the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. He oversees research grants that test assumptions and hypotheses of social and behavioral factors that guide interventions designed to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups entering careers in biomedical research.

“Dr. Smith and Dr. Thoman’s work have shed new light on how cultural perspective influences the motivation of students from minority groups and how these factors may contribute to their persistence, commitment and success in the research setting."

Smith said she believed that science will be improved as more students from underrepresented groups enter into the scientific workforce.

“Diversifying biomedical research doesn’t stop or start with undergraduate students,” Smith said. “Diversity yields more creative and innovative ideas, so we must also think about diversity among our teachers and faculty, who can bring their unique perspectives into the scientific discourse.” Smith is also lead investigator of MSU’s ADVANCE grant, a $3.5 million grant to help broaden the participation of women faculty members in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

The paper may be found at:


Jessi L. Smith (406) 994-5228,