Bridge to Ph.D. program provides a way forward for greater access in STEM fields

The pilot program in the Department of Mathematics enables students from underrepresented groups to become the next generation of enterprising mathematicians.

a group of students and a professor looking at a chalk board covered in math equations
Penn’s Bridge to Ph.D. program provides students from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to earn master’s degrees in mathematics while also preparing for a Ph.D. The students are advised by Ryan Hynd (not pictured) and Philip Gressman (center). 

Penn’s Bridge to Ph.D. program provides an opportunity for students from underrepresented backgrounds to earn master’s degrees in mathematics while also preparing for a Ph.D. The program, now in its second year, is receiving positive feedback from the STEM community while enabling a diverse group of students to become the next generation of mathematicians. 

Ryan Hynd, one of the faculty advisors for the Bridge program, has been at Penn since 2012. While serving on the mathematics graduate admissions committee, he noticed that while many prospective students from underrepresented groups had strong applications, there was hesitancy to admit some of them. 

“GRE math subject test scores have a lot of influence on our admissions decision-making process, but some people argue that it really doesn’t test for much. We should try to broaden our horizons in terms of who we give opportunities to because, if we don’t broaden anything, we’ll get very few female and minority students,” says Hynd. 

Using the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program as a model, Hynd worked with mathematics professor and Bridge program co-advisor Philip Gressman, Eve Troutt Powell, associate dean for graduate studies, and former Penn physicist Larry Gladney to develop the pilot program. Thanks to financial support from a private donor, the School of Arts and Sciences and Hynd’s CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, the Bridge to Ph.D. program welcomed its first students to campus two years ago. 

four students standing together in a library looking at a book on a table
Master’s students (from left) Steve Millington, Abiola Oyebo, Juan LanFranco, and Neda Saleem are enrolled in Penn’s pilot Bridge to Ph.D. program in the Department of Mathematics. (Not pictured: George Santellano)

The program currently has five students, three who are in their second year of the master’s program and two first-year students. Each receives an annual stipend of $25,000 and serves as a teaching assistant in the second year. Instead of relying solely on GRE test scores, there are two rounds of interviews that delve into what applicants understand about math, and what have they done to overcome any personal or academic obstacles.

“We’re looking for students who are capable to do math, but we’re also looking for students who have a strong desire to earn a Ph.D. and who have the fortitude to complete years of serious study,” says Hynd. 

Second-year student Juan Lanfranco and first-year student Abiola Oyebo saw the Bridge program as the perfect way for them to prepare for a Ph.D. by earning a master’s degree at Penn. “It’s a very challenging program,” says Lanfranco. “You have to keep up with homework, do outside course reading. It’s a program that really pushes you.” 

In addition to challenging coursework with lots of homework, graduate students must also pass a preliminary exam. Oyebo is currently taking a seminar to help her prepare for the exam in the spring. “I was having trouble with some of the problems that I tried over Winter Break. But now, thanks to the seminar, I’m doing a lot better,” she says. 

Despite the challenges of the Bridge program, Hynd is pleased with the progress that each student has made. “The students come into the program excited and knowing a lot of math, but the classes here are usually more challenging than they would have imagined. Nevertheless, I think their effort and improvement have been phenomenal,” says Hynd. 

Penn’s Bridge program continues to gain momentum and popularity. In December, more than 35 applicants applied for fall 2019. The review panel is now interviewing the first round of students by video, and will invite second-round students for on-site interviews later in the year. Across the STEM-research community, there has also been increased interest in broadening inclusion through bridge programs, and Hynd regularly discusses Penn’s program with interested faculty from other institutions.  

a student and a professor looking at equations on a chalk board
Hynd says that participating in the Berkeley Edge program got him to think about graduate school. He hopes that the Bridge program can provide more students with the same types of opportunities that made his own career possible.

He hopes that this program can provide more students from underrepresented groups with the same types of opportunities that made his own career possible. “I see a lot of myself in many of the students who apply. They have potential; they just need a chance to develop their skills and encouragement from caring mentors.”

Hynd transferred to Georgia Tech from a community college and initially thought he would major in computer engineering. He quickly discovered a love of math through coursework and by doing summer research projects in math and physics. By participating in the Berkeley Edge Conference, a recruitment workshop aimed at increasing diversity among graduate students in STEM, Hynd was accepted into the mathematics Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley.

While Oyebo had an engaging teacher in elementary school who inspired her interest in math, Lanfranco was a late-comer to the field of mathematics. He majored in finance, but found that he enjoyed math enough to earn a second major. Both Oyebo and Lanfranco now want to become professors. “Where I come from, no one thinks of being a professor. They think that a professor is just someone who teaches,” Lanfranco says. “But then in college you realize a professor does more than that.” 

Hynd hopes that the success of this program, and others like it, can help attract and foster students from a diverse set of backgrounds as they become the next generation of creative thinkers and problems solvers. He hopes to see the Bridge to Ph.D. program grow in the coming years and for Penn to continue to be a place of inclusion and opportunity. “We should think about what we can do for these students,” says Hynd. “We also shouldn’t consider them static but rather as pupils who we can develop into strong mathematicians.”