An Adaptable Model to Build Diversity in STEM

There’s a national need to improve retention and graduation rates among underrepresented and first-generation students in STEM. At Lehigh University, we’re implementing institutional changes to meet this goal with the aid of grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

We want to contribute to a technologically advanced, diverse workforce by implementing multiple evidence-based practices that enhance STEM retention and graduation rates. In the longer term, we plan to scale the most successful practices to the full STEM community at Lehigh.

Through the HHMI award we received in 2014, we’ve been able to set up two programs to help meet this aim: the Rapidly Accelerated Research Experience (RARE) and BioConnect.

RARE is a pre-admission-to-graduation, four-year STEM immersion program designed to build outstanding scientific and leadership skills in underrepresented students. BioConnect is a collaboration with community college partners to increase STEM graduation and transfer rates to four-year institutions.

Click on each program to reveal more details.




The opportunity to increase diversity in STEM through RARE and BioConnect is a privilege and an obligation. The HHMI funds, program structure, and the curricular model implemented with prior awards from HHMI have helped attract underrepresented and first-generation students with very strong academic credentials and the drive to succeed.

Our original goal was an 80 percent graduation rate among students in the HHMI program. We are three years in, and retention is 98 percent.

What We’ve Learned


Implementing major changes in educational models takes years, substantial financial investment, institutional support at multiple levels, and a continuous commitment from program leadership.

Grants from HHMI have allowed faculty to redefine their roles by eliminating boundaries between STEM disciplines and between research and teaching functions. Courses are interdisciplinary, team taught in many cases, and incorporate project-based learning. Upper level courses integrate projects aligned with faculty research interests.

These changes have been central to our success in institutionalizing these curricular changes. Without HHMI funding and a willingness by Lehigh to invest side-by-side, we frankly could not have realized our objectives.


It hasn’t always been straightforward. As program directors since 2006 and for three grants from HHMI, we learned relentless advocacy is part of the job. It’s been more than 10 years, which means inevitable changes in senior administrators, new priorities, changes in the higher education landscape, and a responsibility for continuously educating new (and current) faculty about the importance of the program and its alignment with institutional goals.

And then there is sustainability. HHMI does not fund in perpetuity, which brings another obligation: fundraising. We need an endowment to assure continued support once the HHMI funding ends. We also will need a succession plan for program leadership.

Next Steps

Our plans are to broaden the impact of the HHMI program in two ways. One will be by applying the most effective strategies across the entire STEM population at Lehigh. The second will be to publish our findings. We are optimistic that principles and practices that emerge from our program can be adapted at any college or university.

Additional Readings

*Photos provided by authors.


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Neal G. Simon, PhD
Neal G. Simon is a neuroscientist, co-director of the HHMI program, and professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University. He received a BA with honors from the State University of New York at Binghamton and his MS and PHD from Rutgers University. His research program in neuropharmacology and drug development focuses on new therapeutics for stress-related disorders and neurodegenerative diseases.
Vassie C. Ware, PhD
Vassie C. Ware is a molecular cell biologist, co-director of the HHMI program, and professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University. She received a BA in human biology from Brown University and her MPhil and PhD degrees in biology (cell, development, and genetics track) from Yale University. Her research program focuses on two primary areas: specialized functions of ribosome variants in eukaryotic systems, and phage comparative and functional genomics. She is the inaugural director of the HHMI-sponsored SEA-PHAGES Program at Lehigh and co-director of the distance education MS degree program in molecular biology.

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