A Longtime STEM Funder That Offers a Super Sweet Deal to Ph.D. Students

In the national mission to encourage more students to enter STEM fields, the threshold between undergraduate and grad school is one of the most critical junctures. That's when many high-achieving STEM students make big career-path decisions, including whether to stay in academia and head to grad school, which specialty to enter, whether to concentrate on an academic or commercial path.

Since it's in everyone's interest to have a big percentage of the best young talent stick with STEM professions, easing the financial burden of extended grad school studies makes sense. The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, established by the guy behind the rental car fortune, has long been ahead of the curve in championing STEM studies.

Every year since 1963, the foundation has provided rich financial and mentor support to top Ph.D. students in the physical, biological and engineering sciences. So far, there have been about 1,200 Hertz fellows. Some have won other big honors, such as the Nobel Prize, Turing Award, the National Medal of Science, the Breakthrough Prize in Science, and MacArthur Fellowships.

The foundation recently announced the 2016 cohort of Hertz Fellows, an impressive list of 12 smart young folks who will continue their studies at Ph.D. programs at top research institutions, like MIT, Caltech, Stanford and the like.

Each Fellowship brings up to five years of financial, mentoring and community support. This includes a stipend and full tuition, valued at more than $250,000.

The fellowships also provide research freedom, enabling these doctoral candidates to start innovating early, free from the typical constraints of funding, with complete financial independence, under the guidance and mentorship of top experts in their fields.

As Hertz Foundation president Robbee Baker Kosak observed, too few of the country's most talented students pursue careers in science, engineering and mathematics. The foundation runs a rigorous qualification process to award its prestigious fellowships. So they need the broadest possible talent pool, as do we all.

Unfortunately, it's no surprise to see that only three of the 12 Hertz Fellows are women, and a tiny number are people of color. Of the previous 60 fellows listed on the foundation's website, about a dozen are women, or just under a quarter. One can assume Hertz cast as broad and inclusive a net as it could, and this year's cohort represents some progress from historical disparities.

As we've previously discussed, similar historical racial disparities prevail in STEM, with underrepresentation of people of color in science and tech programs and professions. These disparities underscore the need for continued and increased action to draw more young women into science and technology, and to build awareness of unconscious racial and gender biases—including outright sexism—in academia, industry and other institutions.