Category Archives: Iowa State University

Team finds hidden state of matter in superconductive alloy

Using the physics equivalent of strobe photography, researchers have used ultrafast spectroscopy to visualize electrons interacting as a hidden state of matter in a superconductive alloy.

It takes intense, single-cycle pulses of photons—flashes—hitting the cooled alloy at terahertz speed—trillions of cycles per second—to switch on this hidden state of matter by modifying quantum interactions down at the atomic and subatomic levels.

“We are creating and controlling a new quantum matter that can’t be achieved by any other means.”

And then it takes a second terahertz light to trigger an ultrafast camera to take images of the state of matter that, when fully understood and tuned, could one day have implications for faster and heat-free quantum computing, information storage, and communication.

The discovery of this new switching scheme and hidden quantum phase was full of conceptual and technical challenges.

To find new, emergent electron states of matter beyond solids, liquids, and gases, today’s condensed matter physicists can no longer fully rely on traditional, slow, thermodynamic tuning methods such as changing temperatures, pressures, chemical compositions, or magnetic fields, says Jigang Wang, professor of physics and astronomy at Iowa State University and a faculty scientist at the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory.

“The grand, open question of what state is hidden underneath superconductivity is universal, but poorly understood,” Wang says. “Some hidden states appear to be inaccessible with any thermodynamic tuning methods.”

The new quantum switching scheme developed by the researchers (they call it terahertz light-quantum-tuning) uses short pulses of trillionths of a second at terahertz frequency to selectively bombard, without heating, superconducting niobium-tin, which at ultracold temperatures can conduct electricity without resistance. The flashes suddenly switch the model compound to a hidden state of matter.

In most cases, exotic states of matter such as the one described in this research paper are unstable and short-lived. In this case, the state of matter is metastable, meaning it doesn’t decay to a stable state for an order of magnitude longer than other, more typical transient states of matter.

The fast speed of the switch to a hidden quantum state likely has something to do with that.

“Here, the quantum quench (change) is so fast, the system is trapped in a strange ‘plateau’ and doesn’t know how to go back,” says Wang, corresponding author of the paper in Nature Materials. “With this fast-quench, yet non-thermal system, there’s no normal place to go.”

A remaining challenge for the researchers is to figure out how to control and further stabilize the hidden state and determine if it is suitable for quantum logic operations, Wang says. That could allow researchers to harness the hidden state for practical functions such as quantum computing and for fundamental tests of bizarre quantum mechanics.

It all starts with the researchers’ discovery of a new quantum switching scheme that gives them access to new and hidden states of matter.

“We are creating and controlling a new quantum matter that can’t be achieved by any other means,” says Wang.

Source: Iowa State University

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How setbacks make us rethink our goals

New research digs into how setbacks affect the pursuit of our goals, such as weight loss.

Setbacks are to be expected when pursuing a goal, whether you’re trying to lose weight or save money. The challenge is getting back on track and not giving up after a difficulty or crisis, says José Rosa, marketing professor in Iowa State University’s Ivy College of Business.

“We know it’s hard to get back on once people take the off ramp.”

Rosa is part of a research team working on practical ways to help people stick to health-related goals—specifically, prescribed regimens for medical ailments that require significant lifestyle changes. The work is personal for Rosa. His diabetic sister nearly died when her blood sugar hit dangerously high levels, and she struggles with poor vision and health, he says.

Staying committed to a long-term health goal is challenging, because it may feel as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel, Rosa says. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, there is a defined timeframe and a point to celebrate achieving your goal. However, if you are diabetic and need to cut certain foods from your diet or change your daily routine to exercise more, the goal has a different feel, Rosa says.

“These are some of the most difficult goals we face, because the effort has to become a way of life. If you’re a diabetic, you have to be thinking about your diet every time you eat,” Rosa says. “In many ways, it is sacrificial. You must endure this cost and the reward is health.”

Unfortunately, the reward is not immediate and often difficult to realize with certain ailments, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. As we age, other health issues can complicate the outcome of the initial goal and appear as if our efforts aren’t paying off. This makes it harder to stick to the goal, Rosa says, even though we know giving up can have serious consequences.

In the new study, researchers conducted five experiments to understand how crisis influences motivation and commitment to the goal. The researchers found that a setback or difficulty often prompts people to reassess the cost-benefits of their goal and consider quitting.

The experiments simulated a series of situations in which some participants faced an action crisis. They then answered several questions to determine how they would react. Rosa says an action crisis may be related or unrelated to the goal, but it is a point during goal pursuit when circumstances change, causing us to question whether the goal really matters.

Once that questioning begins, we shift our mindset from implementation to evaluation. We renegotiate the importance of the outcomes and may determine it is no longer worth it, Rosa says.

The researchers refer to that decision to quit as “taking the off ramp,” which can snowball into other problems.

“We know it’s hard to get back on once people take the off ramp. This causes some people to feel like failures and stop trying all together. In some situations, the off ramp leads to behaviors that cause another crisis or a significant decline,” he says.

For example, Rosa says a man with high blood pressure stops taking his medication and suffers a heart attack, or a diabetic woman has an insulin reaction causing her to black out and crash her car.

Little treats aren’t a vice. They get us to our goals

Researchers are now using data from the experiments to develop and test interventions for patients on prescribed health regimens. Rosa says the goal is to provide specific instructions for patients to follow and help shift their mindset from renegotiation or evaluation back to implementation.

The potential benefit of such an intervention extends beyond the individual patient, Rosa says. From a marketing perspective, it is an issue of consumption and making health care more effective for patients. Rosa says the right intervention will help patients stay on track, lessening the risk for additional health issues and lowering health care costs.

The results are published online in the journal Psychology & Marketing.

Researchers from Penn State and the University of Wyoming also contributed to the work.

Source: Iowa State University

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How calling video game addiction a disorder will help addicts

The World Health Organization’s classification of video game addiction as a mental health disorder is a significant step toward getting people the help they need, argues Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology at Iowa State University and an expert on video games and addiction.

In a 2011 study published in Pediatrics, Gentile and his colleagues found gaming addiction is comorbid with other mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, social phobias, and ADHD. The study tracked more than 3,000 children over the course of two years.

The findings help answer a question Gentile is often asked—is video game addiction a primary condition, or a symptom of other disorders?

The study found gaming addiction occurs along with other mental health problems and is not just a symptom or simply used as a coping mechanism. While Gentile understands why people ask this question, he cautions against trying to pinpoint a primary issue when it comes to mental health.

In this video, Gentile explains the science behind the WHO decision as well as what parents need to know about the disorder.

Source: Iowa State University

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Tax on medical devices resulted in cuts to R&D

Companies cut funding for research and development in response to a tax imposed on medical devices as part of the Affordable Care Act, according to new research.

Daeyong Lee, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, examines how certain provisions of the federal health care reform law have affected families and firms. His latest paper, published in the journal Research Policy, analyzed the 2.3 percent excise tax imposed on medical devices in 2013. The research shows the tax significantly reduced R&D investment, sales revenue, gross margins, and earnings by the following amounts:

  • R&D expenditures: $34 million
  • Sales revenue: $188 million
  • Gross margins: $375 million
  • Earnings: $68 million

The study, the first to look at the actual cost for manufacturers, found the tax also affected operating and marketing costs, Lee says.

In the paper, Lee explains that the federal government imposed the tax on the medical device industry because it would benefit from expanded health coverage. The tax applied to everything from needles and syringes to coronary stents, defibrillators and irradiation equipment. Certain items including hearing aids, eyeglasses, and contact lenses were exempt. The medical device field is one of the top five R&D intensive industries, and Lee says a decline in investment could have long-term consequences.

“Highly advanced equipment in hospitals is a critical aspect of medical care,” Lee says. “Some devices such as coronary stents require high-research investment. If medical device firms stop or reduce that investment, we won’t have better equipment and devices for complicated surgeries or procedures.”

Lee looked at different scenarios when calculating the tax effect, controlling for economic factors that might affect investment. To limit the tax impact, firms could have increased prices, passing the burden to consumers. Lee says that did not happen, likely because of the market power of large hospitals and clinics. The data for the study are specific to large customers, not individuals.

In response, medical device firms diversified their customer base and increased global market sales, which were exempt from the tax, Lee says. The findings also suggest firms significantly reduced operating costs for selling, general and administrative expenses, but not advertising and labor expenses.

Congress passed an appropriations act in 2015, which included a two-year moratorium on the medical device excise tax. In January, it was extended to 2020, Lee says. Given the study findings, he says the moratorium could provide time to consider other tax options that do not target a single industry. In the paper, Lee suggests policymakers expand the tax base and include other industries, such as health insurance companies, which also have benefited from increased demand as a result of the health care reform act.

“If there is a broader tax base, the negative effects will be reduced,” Lee says. “The government needs to raise revenue to cover the costs of the Affordable Care Act, but there are other ways to do it without harming a research and development intensive industry.”

Source: Iowa State University

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Bird and turtle genomes offer clues to ancient lizardy creature

Scientists have reconstructed the likely genome structure of a common ancestor of birds, turtles, and dinosaurs.

The research, published in Nature Communications, suggests the chromosomal structure, known as a karyotype, in early dinosaurs is similar to that of most present-day birds.

Working backward from the living relatives of dinosaurs can shed light on traits the fossil record can’t illuminate, says Nicole Valenzuela, a professor of ecology, evolution, and organismal biology at Iowa State University and coauthor of the study.

“Some traits can be observed through fossils and some can’t,” Valenzuela says. “The genome structure is one that can’t be preserved, so we have to get creative if we want to figure that out.”

The researchers compared commonalities between birds and turtles in how their chromosomes, or thread-like structures in living cells that contain an organism’s DNA, are organized. Those commonalities likely existed in an ancestor of birds and turtles—a primitive, lizard-like creature that lived roughly 260 million years ago. The dinosaurs sprang from that same evolutionary branch about 20 million years later, meaning they would carry the same karyotype.

That large-scale arrangement of many chromosomes remained intact from that common ancestor over the course of hundreds of millions of years into present-day birds and turtles, which probably means this organization has critical functions for those organisms.

“That conservation, to me, is remarkable,” Valenzuela says. “Things are usually conserved over that scale of time because they’re important.”

Valenzuela joined the research group, which researchers at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom led, because of her experience with turtle genomes. Her previous work focused on temperature-dependent sex determination, or the way fluctuations in temperature during embryonic development influence the sex of some species of turtles, and more recently on the evolution of turtle chromosomes.

Due to the wide variation of traits among turtles, birds, and dinosaurs, Valenzuela says it’s impossible to tell if the similarities in karyotype contribute to any specific feature of any specific species. In fact, it’s possible that more subtle changes to the structure or DNA sequences within chromosomes helps to facilitate the enormous diversity displayed by the animals in the study.

“We need to look deeper to figure out the basis of the traits that make turtles, birds, and dinosaurs so different from each other,” she says.

Source: Iowa State University

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These two activities can improve the mind and body

A meditation and stress reduction program may be as effective at getting people to move more as structured exercise programs, according to new research.

And for people with depression, a second study points to the benefits of resistance training.

The research suggests a shift from “thinking we need to be in a gym for an hour at a time to thinking about being more active throughout the day.”

The first study compared two intervention programs—mindfulness-based stress reduction and aerobic exercise training—with a control group and measured changes in exercise, general physical activity, and sedentary time. Jacob Meyer, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, says people assigned to the two interventions were more active than those in the control group, logging roughly an extra 75 minutes a week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity following the eight-week interventions. The results appear in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Meyer and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Mississippi Medical Center say helping sedentary adults get those 75 minutes of exercise can extend life expectancy by nearly two years. Researchers expected the exercise intervention to increase physical activity more than the meditation training.

Meyer says it was somewhat surprising to see similar results from the mindfulness intervention. “Structured exercise training is something as a field we have used for decades to improve physical activity and physical health,” Meyer says. “To see a similar effect on physical activity from an intervention that focuses on the way someone thinks or perceives the world was completely unexpected.”

The researchers used a mindfulness-based stress reduction program that Jon Kabat-Zinn developed. It aims to reduce stress through meditation, self-awareness, and being present in the moment, Meyer says. People in the mindfulness intervention spent 2 1/2 hours a week in class learning how to be mindful. They practiced mindful stretching and movement as well as breathing exercises to incorporate into their daily activities.

Similarly, those in the exercise group attended 2 1/2 hour weekly sessions learning various exercise techniques and discussing strategies to change behavior. An hour of each class was dedicated to a group activity such as walking or jogging. Meyer says both groups received encouragement to do the intervention at home for 20 to 45 minutes each day.

‘Active’ doesn’t just mean the gym

While the interventions did not significantly increase time spent exercising or decrease sedentary time, participants generally maintained activity levels. Meyer says this is important given the timeframe for the study. Researchers collected data during the fall and early winter months as part of a larger study focused on the cold and flu season. Seasonal variation in weather likely contributed to the sharp decline in activity for the control group, Meyer says, but the intervention groups did not experience the same drop-off.

The study focused on exercise in bouts that lasted at least 10 minutes, but also tracked general physical activity, such as walking from the parking lot to the office or working in the yard. Meyer says both intervention groups saw smaller drop-offs in general activity levels than the control group, which is encouraging given the forthcoming changes to federal physical activity recommendations.

Researchers used the 10-minute threshold to be consistent with federal guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise weekly, in bouts of at least 10 minutes, Meyer says. However, the recommendations only focus on a small percentage (1.5 percent) of minutes in the week. That is one reason why the updated guidelines, expected later this year, emphasize overall activity, regardless of length of time.

“There are clinical and cardiovascular health benefits to exercise training, but there are also important general health benefits from a more active lifestyle,” Meyer says. “Shifting from thinking we need to be in a gym for an hour at a time to thinking about being more active throughout the day helps people understand how physical activity could play a role in helping improve their health.”

Resistance for depression

For the second study, Meyer and colleagues tested the effects of resistance training on symptoms of depression. The results, published in JAMA Psychiatry, show weightlifting and muscle-strengthening exercises significantly reduced depressive symptoms.

Resistance training reduced symptoms for adults whether or not strength improved.

The meta-analysis, which Brett Gordon at the University of Limerick led, included 33 randomized controlled trials with more than 1,800 participants. Resistance training reduced symptoms for adults regardless of health status, the volume of training, and whether or not strength improved, Meyer says. The results appear similar to the benefits from aerobic exercise found in other studies.

Depression affects more than 300 million people, according to the World Health Organization. Meyer says resistance training could provide a treatment option with benefits that extend beyond mental health. In the paper, researchers explain the economic costs as well as other health risks associated with depression. Meyer says resistance training also gives patients an alternative to medication.

“For general feelings of depression and the beginning phases of major depression, antidepressants and medications may not be very effective. There also is a shift toward finding options that do not require someone to start a drug regimen they may be on for the rest of their lives,” Meyer says.

“Understanding that resistance training appears to have similar benefits to aerobic exercise may help those wading through daunting traditional medication treatment options.”

Meyer says future research is needed to know if aerobic exercise and resistance training work through similar channels to reduce depressive symptoms or work independently.

Source: Iowa State University

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Brain scans show diabetics more likely to focus on negative

People with Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes are more likely to focus on and have a strong emotional response to threats and negative things, which affects quality of life and increases risk for depression, according to new research.

The study, which appears in Psychosomatic Medicine, suggests those negative feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety—which can be a daily occurrence for people with diabetes or prediabetes—may stem from problems regulating blood sugar levels that influence emotional response in the brain.

Researchers analyzed data on startle response, brain activity, cortisol levels, and cognitive assessment. Data came from Midlife in the US (MIDUS), a national study of health and well-being.

Gauging the startle response allowed researchers to measure central nervous system activity using tiny electrodes placed below the eye, says Auriel Willette, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.

Study participants viewed a series of negative, positive, and neutral images intended to elicit an emotional response. The electrodes captured the rate of flinch or startle, a contraction we cannot control, associated with each image.

“People with higher levels of insulin resistance were more startled by negative pictures. By extension, they may be more reactive to negative things in life,” Willette says. “It is one piece of evidence to suggest that these metabolic problems are related to issues with how we perceive and deal with things that stress all of us out.”

Some people with diabetes lack blood sugar ‘awareness’

The evidence is even more compelling when combined with the results of EEG tests recording activity when the brain is at rest, researchers say.

Participants with prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes had more activity on the right side of the brain, which is associated with depression and negative emotions. If someone is predisposed to focusing on negative things, it may become a barrier for losing weight and reversing health issues, says lead author Tovah Wolf, a graduate student working with Willette.

People with prediabetes and diabetes also recorded lower cortisol levels—a potential indicator of chronic stress—and cognitive test scores, providing additional support for the findings.

“For people with blood sugar problems, being more stressed and reactive can cause blood sugar to spike. If people with prediabetes and diabetes are trying to reverse or treat the disease, stressful events may hinder their goals,” Wolf says. “Frequent negative reactions to stressful events can lead to a lower quality of life and create a vicious cycle that makes it difficult to be healthy.”

Willette can relate. He struggled with weight, at one time weighing 260 pounds, which affected his day-to-day quality of life. The risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses related to obesity is well known, but many people may not recognize how fluctuations in blood sugar can take a toll on them every day, he says.

Skin transplants could treat diabetes and obesity

Additional work is needed to determine if the link between insulin resistance and emotional response is causal, and explore options for potential interventions. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison contributed to the research.

Source: Iowa State University

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How farming screwed up Midwest carbon storage

Changes in land use and agricultural practices affect the amount of carbon stored in Midwestern soils, according to new research.

The results show that management practices can help to store carbon, a component of major greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and keep it from releasing into the atmosphere where it may contribute to climate change.

The study, which appears in the journal Global Change Biology, models how changes in Midwestern land use since 1850 have affected the global exchange of carbon between the land and atmosphere.

“Carbon fluxes due to land use and management are the most uncertain part of global carbon budget,” says coauthor Chaoqun Lu, assistant professor of ecology, evolution, and organismal biology at the University of Iowa. “We wanted to fill in those blanks. Usually ag management is oversimplified or not included at all, or legacy effects of long-term land use history are excluded from previous studies.”

The study focuses on how carbon can transfer from terrestrial sources such as soil or plants into the atmosphere, and vice versa during crop production. When carbon transfers from the ground into the atmosphere, it can contribute to climate change. But keeping it stored, or sequestered, in the ground slows the greenhouse effect.

Lu and her research team gathered data from the US Department of Agriculture and satellite images to reconstruct crop-related land use and management history in the Midwest dating back 165 years and used computer models to simulate how changes in land use affected carbon exchange. The Midwest underwent some of the most intense, human-induced changes in land use during that period, as people transferred grassland and wetlands to agricultural uses, Lu says.

According to the study, land use changes between 1850 and 2015 reduced billions of tons of carbon storage capacity in plants and soil. The model estimation showed periods of drastic cropland expansion, which peaked in the 1920s, reduced terrestrial carbon storage. The study found a decrease of about 1.35 billion tons of carbon storage in vegetation and about 4.5 billion tons of carbon storage loss in soil.

U.S. forests could be storing tons and tons more carbon

In addition, the study accounted for various agricultural practices such as tillage, fertilizer use, and crop rotation and derived the impact on carbon exchange. The researchers found modern agricultural management practices increased soil carbon storage capacity by nearly a billion tons, says Zhen Yu, an ecology postdoctoral researcher.

That’s good news in the sense that practices such as limited or no tillage contribute to carbon sequestration and help to realize environmental benefits, Lu says. The results also will help future researchers build a more complete understanding of global carbon exchange.

“The results imply that proper land management practices can potentially contribute to strengthen carbon sequestration of the agroecosystems in the Midwestern US,” Yu says.

Source:  Iowa State University

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Diagnose crop disease with a smartphone

New technology could allow anyone with a smartphone to diagnose crop disease the same way trained plant breeders and scientists do.

The findings show how artificial intelligence can identify a range of common stresses in soybeans and improve efficiency for plant breeders and farmers.

Researchers started by collecting a large dataset of around 25,000 images of soybean stresses taken in Iowa, says Arti Singh, an adjunct assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University and co-corresponding author of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We want this technology to allow machines to see with the eyes of an experienced plant breeder.”

The team developed an automated machine-learning framework to find patterns in the soybean leaf images that correlated with eight common sources of stress—such as diseases, nutrient deficiency, and herbicide injury—and came up with a computer application that can diagnose and quantify the amount of various foliar stresses by analyzing digital images of soybeans.

Scouting crops and conducting visual measurements for stress is a time-consuming and often inconsistent process both for plant breeders and farmers, so introducing an automated tool could save time and produce more standardized results, Singh says.

“We want this technology to allow machines to see with the eyes of an experienced plant breeder.”

Researchers compared the performance of their program with actual diagnoses from trained plant scientists, and the results showed excellent correlation, says Soumik Sarkar, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and co-corresponding author. Further, the program qualifies its diagnosis by providing the specific visual symptoms it noted to reach its conclusions.

Computer model can tell farmers what crops to plant

While the program is currently available only for academic communities, the researchers say they intend to deploy the application on smartphones to make the product available widely.

“This is a prime example of how artificial intelligence can be applied to agriculture,” Sarkar says. “It can provide more automation and more efficiency than the traditional way of diagnosing these stresses.”

Asheesh Singh, associate professor of agronomy; Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, associate professor of mechanical engineering; and PhD students, Sam Ghosal in mechanical engineering and David Blystone in agronomy, contributed to the work.

The Iowa Soybean Association, the ISU Plant Sciences Institute, the ISU Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research, the US Department of Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation funded the work.

Source: Iowa State University

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These factors drive black men out of engineering school

For black men, pursuing a graduate degree in engineering is like riding out a storm, according to new research. They enroll knowing they will face challenges, but the barriers that black men described as part of a six-year study show how race was a greater obstacle than they expected.

“Our research shows the main challenges these students faced were beyond their control. They were systemic, structural, historic…”

Brian Burt, lead author and an assistant professor in Iowa State University’s School of Education, says the storm is a fitting analogy because these young men faced turbulent times as a result of structural inequalities and a lack of support from faculty and colleagues to weather it. Insight from the research is valuable in reversing the trend of underrepresented students and employees in all STEM fields, he says.

Burt and coauthors Krystal Williams of the University of Alabama and William Smith of the University of Utah interviewed 21 black men pursuing engineering graduate degrees at a research university. Several common themes detailed structural racism within the university, which led to unfair treatment, unwelcoming environments or isolation, and unnecessary strain on black graduate students. These factors significantly affect a student’s ability to succeed, Burt says.

“There’s an assumption that students drop out of an engineering program because they couldn’t cut it. That the problem is an individual flaw,” Burt says. “Our research shows the main challenges these students faced were beyond their control. They were systemic, structural, historic, and rooted in a legacy of science that is counterproductive for broadening student participation in STEM.”

Collective high school (3.66) and college (3.58) GPAs show students in the study were strong academically. Black male graduate enrollment across the university was less than 2 percent during the study. A majority of the study participants had parents who went to college, including four with mothers and three with fathers who had doctorates.

The paper, published in the American Educational Research Journal, includes portions of student interviews that describe what it meant to be one of a few or the only black student in class. It affected everything from difficulty finding and joining a study group to feeling constant pressure to prove they belonged in the program.

“If negative experiences cause black men to leave doctoral engineering programs, that hurts national efforts to broaden participation in these fields.”

“People are naturally going to want to be around people who look like them,” Marcus, a third-year PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, told researchers. “As a black man in engineering, I don’t have that camaraderie. So, I am forced to immediately look outside of my comfort zone in order to find people who I can study with, talk with, and have overall support.”

Some students told researchers they considered leaving their program because of the negativity they faced. Many said they received discouraging messages from their advisers that ranged from passive-aggressive to explicit challenges regarding their ability to perform doctoral-level work. The ripple effect of these actions can affect generations, says Williams.

“If negative experiences cause black men to leave doctoral engineering programs, that hurts national efforts to broaden participation in these fields,” Williams says. “It limits the number of black faculty who will train the next generation of engineers and diversify the future pool of researchers and scientists. It also has implications for national security, innovation, and technological advancements because different perspectives may be excluded.”


The discrimination students experienced was overt at times, but they most often had to deal with racial microaggressions, researchers found. Those included verbal comments or behaviors, intentional and unintentional, which came across as hostile or derogatory.

Other researchers have described the effect of racial microaggressions as “death by a thousand cuts”—the individual comment or action may seem minor, but the cumulative effect is harmful.

“Race is this constant thought process in which black students are often asking, ‘Is this because of my race?’ It’s exhausting. This is not just happening in the research lab, but it happens in the classroom and study groups, or when looking for a place to eat,” Smith says.

How to address the issue

If colleges and universities are serious about increasing and retaining the number of underrepresented graduate students in STEM fields, faculty, administrators, and staff need to investigate existing policies and recruitment strategies that may have unintended consequences, researchers say. Burt recommends the following steps:

  • Get rid of assumptions that there are no qualified black candidates to become faculty members
  • Improve recruitment and retention by admitting more black students
  • Implement programs to help students learn how to interact with students from other cultures
8 ways to improve diversity in STEM

Implementing change at the graduate level will lead to short-term and long-term benefits, Burt says. Not only will it help recruit and retain black graduate students, but it also will increase the number of black engineers working in the field and teaching on college campuses.

“We need more black males at the highest level to serve as models for younger generations. If there were more black scientists and engineers, I can only imagine how that would shape a child’s mind,” Burt says. “It also would bring to the table people with unique skills and insights based on their backgrounds to help address some of the world’s most vexing problems.”

Source: Iowa State University

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