21 September 2022

Project RADIAL

Jennifer Bates National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Year after year, underrepresented minority (URM) populations participate and persist in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers in disproportionately low numbers as compared to the general population. Research has shown that minority-serving institutions (MSIs) often account for the highest number of minority students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in STEM. For example, of the bachelor's degrees awarded in Computer Science, Mathematics and Statistics, and Physical Science in 2016, less than 9% of the degrees in each of these fields were awarded to African American students, and less than 3% to African American women (National Science Foundation, 2019). At the same time, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) accounted for only 3% of four-year nonprofit colleges in the US in 2017 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017), yet were responsible for 20% of African American students who completed bachelor degrees (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018; Reeves and Joo, 2017). This achievement is a phenomenal example of resilience and persistence on the part of MSIs. 

Despite their achievements in STEM, many MSIs, due to a plethora of factors (including systemic racism, historical inequities in the distribution of federal support, etc.), have limited resources to allocate to the field of radio astronomy. Simultaneously, in the field of radio astronomy, there’s increasing recognition of the benefits of a diverse workforce. As an organization, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) recognizes the positive impact of a diverse workforce. The NRAO is conducting the largest celestial radio census ever using its 26-dish Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope. The VLA Sky Survey (VLASS) will map 80% of the sky in three phases (epochs) over seven years and is expected to catalog ~10 million radio sources. In order to realize the full scientific potential of VLASS, the NRAO must collect, process, and analyze complex data and deliver science data ready products. The large volumes of workflow created by the VLASS presented a unique opportunity for the NRAO to have a direct and long-lasting impact on both URM students in STEM and the institutions that serve them most frequently. 

The original concept of Project Radio Astronomy Data Imaging and Analysis Lab (RADIAL) was to partner with MSIs to create small data analysis and processing hubs within each institution utilizing the distributed High Throughput Computing (dHTC) approach which would simultaneously process the data images and allow for each institution to have additional computing capability to use as needed.

Potential MSI partners were intrigued.

And knowing that in order for these hubs to be successful and for the goal of increasing a diverse and skillful workforce to be realized, they needed more than a rack of CPUs. Representatives from 10 MSIs gathered to engage in an intensive planning session to focus on URM student participation in STEM. They identified what would become the six pillars of Project RADIAL:

  • Curriculum development, specifically focusing on under/graduate astronomy, computer science, and data science curriculum accessible via an online, open access platform;

  • Engagement of the local community feeder schools through the development of middle and high school radio astronomy curriculum accessible via an online, open access platform; and a pre-college STEM program offered to high school students in each partner MSI’s feeder schools;

  • An innovative approach to mentorship through the development of a collaborative traditional and peer-to-peer mentorship program for URM students that are specifically designed to address the unique needs of URM students in STEM; 

  • Development of a collaborative professional development program for partner representatives, MSI faculty, mentors, and URM students and educators; 

  • Facilitation of research experience and internship/traineeship opportunities for under/graduate URM students; 

  • Installation of dHTC data processing and analysis systems in combination with the other pillars would create computing hubs within each partner institution, allowing students and faculty access to additional computing resources and opportunities to engage in research utilizing VLASS images.

During the planning session, it became clear that URM students are the priority of each of the faculty members and that prioritizing their commitment to their institution and their students limited their ability to commit the time and resources needed to make Project RADIAL a success. It was agreed that NRAO would serve as the backbone organization to coordinate and facilitate Project RADIAL activities.

Since its implementation in 2019, Project RADIAL continues to grow both in the number of partner MSIs, the number of alliances formed with PWIs (Predominately White Institutions), and its impact on URM students. Project RADIAL Partners include Morgan State University, Agnes Scott College, Florida A & M University, Morehouse College, New Mexico Tech, Norfolk State University, South Carolina State University, Spelman College, Texas Tech University, University of Texas-San Antonio, University of the Virgin Islands, University of the West Indies, and the University of Puerto-Rico Mayaguez.

Currently, Project RADIAL efforts include the following programs: an innovative mentorship program uniquely designed to train mentors of URM students in partnership with the University of California-Santa Cruz; a training series for faculty focused on URM mental health (including becoming certified in Mental Health First Aid-Adult); a podcast series to highlight URM professionals in STEM for students; summer Research and Training Experiences (RTE) opportunities; two fully funded opportunities for graduate studies in partnership with the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Sloan Foundation; a data synthesis work-study program; an online learning platform with short course content in a variety of topics related to radio astronomy for both undergraduate students and high school teachers, in partnership with the Spectrum X Center; an NSF-funded data mapping research project; and, of course, the installation of dHTC hubs. 

Project RADIAL continues to grow with the goal that every opportunity that is offered will assist URM students and the institutions that serve them in unlocking the amazing potential for STEM that they have inside.   

Acknowledgment: The author expresses appreciation to Anja Fourie and the proposing team of the 2021 NSF HDR proposal for their contributions to this blog.