The BUILD Boost: Strengthening science identity

Publication shares findings on undergrad program for biomedical students

By Melissa Simon

October 13, 2023

Does a student’s participation in a program aimed at engaging and training undergraduate students interested in biomedical careers strengthen their identity as a scientist? 

This is one of the questions that a team of researchers from the federally funded Diversity Program Consortium (DPC) tackled in a study released June 10. 

The DPC is an initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health that focuses on implementing and evaluating strategies to enhance the training and mentoring of students and faculty, while also expanding the research capacity of institutions. 

Graphic with headline “What is science identity?” Figure of a person with 3 circles surrounding their head each with a text label. 1st: Recognition, 2nd: Performance, 3rd: Competence

Aspects of an individual's science identity

Titled “BUILDing an Early Advantage: An Examination of the Role of Strategic Interventions in Developing First-Year Undergraduate Students’ Science Identity,” the study examines whether first-year students participating in the DPC’s Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) programs developed a stronger science identity than their peers not in BUILD, and if the program’s effect varied based on an individual’s racial/ethnic identity or gender identity.

BUILD is one of various programs the NIH has invested in over the years in an effort to diversify the biomedical workforce by engaging, training and mentoring undergraduate students in research fields.

Kevin Eagan, PhD, who authored “BUILDing an Early Advantage” with Ana Romero, PhD, and Shujin Zhong, PhD, said the study talks about science identity as a person’s ability to see themselves as a researcher by developing competency as a scientist and being recognized by others as a scientist. 

“Our outcome [from this study] talks about identifying with the community of scientists, seeing oneself as a scientific person. The assumption is [that] students who develop and sustain science identities early during college are more likely to strengthen their commitments to pursuing graduate work in the sciences and then ultimately working in the scientific workforce,” Eagan said.

Eagan is an associate professor in UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies (SEIS), the former director of the Higher Education Research Institute and a senior investigator for the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC) at UCLA. Romero is the assistant director of the Master of Education in Student Affairs program for UCLA’s SEIS and an associate project scientist in the CEC. Zhong is a postdoctoral associate in the College of Education’s Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland.

A different kind of study

The “BUILDing an Early Advantage” study is different from other similar research because it looks at student-focused programs at various institutions, rather than a single-institution study demonstrating the effectiveness of one particular program.

The study’s sample shows about two-thirds are women, roughly one-third identified as African American or Black, slightly more than one-quarter were first-generation college students and nearly three-quarters earned A-minuses or higher in high school.

“Even in that short window of time, we found that the BUILD students experienced more growth in science identity than non-BUILD students,” Eagan said.

One of the key points of the study was to determine if BUILD was working and what kind of boost or advantage students were getting from participating, he said. Among those advantages were more exposure to research experiences and intentional mentorship from faculty.

To analyze the data, the authors used a quasi-experimental design that compared BUILD participants to students not involved with the program. 

BUILD students were paired with “academic and demographic twins” not participating in the program to account for differences that might be relevant to being in BUILD versus not, Eagan said. After applying this particular research design, both groups showed an equivalent “incoming baseline of science identity.”

“So, if we're going to see differences or growth in student science identity in the first year and we want to understand whether BUILD is having an effect, it’s really important to make sure that, when we look at that effect, we're starting them at the same level,” Eagan said.

He added that they used longitudinal data—meaning information was collected from participants at two different points in their freshman year—to show whether they experienced any growth in their science identity.

“Even in that short window of time, we found that the BUILD students experienced more growth in science identity than non-BUILD students,” Eagan said.

One of the key points of the study was to determine if BUILD was working and what kind of boost or advantage students were getting from participating, he said. Among those advantages were more exposure to research experiences and intentional mentorship from faculty.

“We know that mentorship is an important part of BUILD, and we find that having a faculty mentor in that first year provided students a significant advantage on their science identity. But even after accounting for faculty mentorship and research experiences, we still find a modest and statistically significant effect of participating in BUILD as a scholar on students’ science identity,” Eagan said.

This BUILD effect boosted the scholars’ science identity.  

“We speculate that there’s some community or social aspect associated with BUILD that contributes to students’ science identity development that we can't yet unpack with the variables that we have access to,” he continued. 

“I think that’s where some of the qualitative work might help us probe a little bit more. We were really excited to see that, in such a short time, BUILD [programs] really can provide students with these kinds of advantages.”

Graphic with headline “Difference in science identity growth” An illustration of a person inside of an arrow. The figure is filled in three colors each with a corresponding text label. 1st: Pre-college Factors, 2nd: Research & Mentorship, 3rd: BUILD Boost

Explaining the science identity growth advantage for BUILD students

Future research opportunities

Beyond publishing “BUILDing an Early Advantage,” Eagan looks forward to a broader analysis of BUILD students’ education over time and across all 10 BUILD programs. 

Photo of M. Kevin Eagan - University of California, Los Angeles

Study's lead author

Eagan, Romero and Nicole Maccalla, PhD, co-director of the CEC's Evaluation Core, are currently working on these analyses and plan to present their findings in November at the Association for the Study of Higher Education conference. The paper will explore the overall effect of BUILD on developing a science identity throughout four years of college and whether students participating in the program grew their science identity at different rates. 

“As we move into some of the longer term studies . . . we'll try to understand some of the nuances that might be happening within those [BUILD] sites, as well as potentially understanding whether BUILD works differently at different sites,” he said. 

“And if we find that, ultimately, BUILD operates differently at certain sites, we’ll likely need to rely on some qualitative data from the [additional CEC] case studies to understand what some sites are doing differently that might be more or less effective.”

This could include the amount of funding a BUILD student gets, the number of hours of mentorship students receive or the overall size of the program. 

“None of that is really known yet,” Eagan said.  

Read the full study on “BUILDing an Early Advantage” at Springer Link. Learn more about the DPC and the BUILD programs.

This story is included in the Volume 8, Issue 3 of the DPC Newsletter — “Spotlight on Student Research Experiences"

A dpc /_next/static/media/News-Icon.668db944.svg icon.

Recent News

A dpc /_next/static/media/Chat-Icon.d89f9794.svg icon.

Connect with us

(or ask us for help!)




















The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.

A dpc /_next/static/media/DPC-Tree.6d907ad5.svg icon.

Grow Together.