Patricia Lang: Bringing Needed Diversity into STEM Research

Dr. Patricia Lang’s mission is to make everyone feel welcome in a science or math classroom.

In Fall 2019, Lang received the University’s Outstanding Diversity Advocate award for her work with women and minority students at Ball State. Over her career, she has mentored nearly 70 research students, half of whom are women and/or minority students.

As a chemistry professor and also director of the University’s chapter of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), Lang works closely with math and science chairs and the administration to support STEM initiatives, write proposals, and advocate for resources and student-learning initiatives.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, LSAMP funds paid research opportunities for minority students in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields. The goal is to double the number of underrepresented students graduating with science and math degrees from colleges and universities in Indiana and across the country.

Roughly one-third of minority students pursuing STEM degrees never graduate. And it’s not because they aren’t prepared, said Lang. “When you delve deeper, it’s because they feel like they don’t belong.”

LSAMP, therefore, is as much a social program as an academic one, aimed at boosting confidence through peer support. LSAMP pairs a freshman with an upperclassman and also with a faculty mentor. The program helps undergraduate students find research work in laboratories. It even hosts picnics and game nights.

Among participating LSAMP institutions, Ball State has a reputation as a leader, said Lang, who serves as co-principal investigator of the Indiana LSAMP proposal that was awarded $4.9 million, which will continue to be used to change the lives of minority students across the state.

“My inspiration is from my own experience as a first-generation college student. I didn’t know how to navigate college,” said Lang, who received her bachelor’s in science at Ball State and went on to earn her PhD in chemistry from Miami University of Ohio.

“I was often the only woman in my science classes. I was the first woman faculty who was tenured at Ball State’s chemistry department. So, that inspires me because I know what it’s like to feel isolated myself.”

That feeling didn’t hold Lang back from becoming a respected scholar in her field. Her research group has developed new analytical methods, applying infrared spectroscopy and microspectroscopy to diverse projects, from measuring amounts of asbestos in air and bulk samples to identifying paint fragments and other materials from medieval works of art.

Lang has brought in dozens of underrepresented students to participate in these projects, making her “not only an outstanding chemistry professor but the perfect blending of a scholar and advocate for inclusive teaching, research, and service,” according to a former student who was among those nominating her for the Diversity Advocate award.

While driven by a moral imperative to help bring equality to the STEM world, Lang pointed out a more pragmatic purpose: Demographics in the United States are changing. The sciences simply must recruit more minorities.

“If we don’t, we won’t continue as a leader in science and technology.”

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