Stony Brook University president, Maurie McInnis, left, and David Spergel,...

Stony Brook University president, Maurie McInnis, left, and David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation, unveil the Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars Program at the school on Wednesday. Credit: Stony Brook University/John Griffin

A multimillion dollar gift to Stony Brook University will fund opportunities for students in underrepresented groups to bring fresh perspectives and diversity to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

A $56.6 million award from the Simons Foundation and its sister foundation Simons Foundation International will launch the school’s Simons STEM Scholars Program. Officials announced the award during an event on the Stony Brook campus Wednesday.

The money will cover four years of tuition, housing, study abroad stipends, and mentorship opportunities for more than 200 students, or 50 students in each of four matriculating classes.

“The support network, tight-knit community, and sense of belonging that students will find in this program will be life-changing,” Simons Foundation co-founders Jim and Marilyn Simons said in a statement. “We’re incredibly proud to be part of a program like this, with positive implications not just for Stony Brook, but for New York State and the broader scientific and mathematical communities.”

The couple and their foundation have donated $620 million over the years to the university where Jim Simons once chaired the mathematics department and where Marilyn Simons earned a doctorate in economics. Jim Simons went on to found the East Setauket-based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, which made him one of the world’s wealthiest people.

Their many contributions include funds to establish the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics and a 2019 gift from Marilyn Simons that helped establish a new Center for Applied Economics and Public Policy.

The STEM scholars gift is the largest in the university’s history specifically benefiting undergraduate study, said Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis.

The university plans to begin recruiting immediately and admit the first class of Simons STEM scholars in fall 2023, McInnis said. The students will also be able to take advantage of Stony Brook research partnerships with institutes like Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Black and Hispanic workers make up only 17% of the STEM workforce compared with representing 28% of the total workforce, according to a 2021 report from Pew Research Center. Simons STEM Scholars will increase diversity in those fields either through dedication to that cause or because they themselves are from underrepresented groups.

“While the STEM workforce is the fastest growing segment, it is one of the least diverse segments,” McInnis said. “And if we are going to have a truly exciting, innovative workforce, we need to attract all the talent that is out there to pursue STEM degrees.”

No school in the Northeast is on the list of the top 20 producers of Black students earning STEM degrees, said Simons Foundation president David Spergel. Stony Brook was a good fit for the new Simons Foundation program because it draws from the diverse New York City and Long Island areas, already has strong STEM programs, is a residential campus and has a long-standing relationship with the organization, he said.

“We're looking for people who will be future leaders and build a more diverse field,” Spergel said. “Some of the people will be African American or Hispanic and some of them will be white kids who are really committed to this. And we'll want all of them there.”

The program is modeled on a similar initiative at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County which began with the goal of educating Black male students and is open to aspiring scientists and engineers who are committed to diversity. There the Meyerhoff Scholars Program has graduated 1,400 students since 1993, 385 of which went on to earn PhDs, according to the university.

Its alumni have not only diversified, but advanced their fields, said program director Keith Harmon. Graduates, who include Kizzmekia Corbett, who led the National Institutes of Health team that developed the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, lean on one another to succeed, he said.

“What we know now 30 years on is these are lifelong connections,” Harmon said. “They're forming networks, they are mentoring other people and bringing them along. It's a really powerful model.”

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