$1M Rossin Foundation gift will bolster recruitment of top-tier PhD candidates, open doors for diversity

Peter and Joan StephansA $1 million gift from Joan R. Stephans, daughter of Peter Rossin, and her husband, Peter, through The Rossin Foundation will directly support engineering students launching their doctoral studies, setting the Rossin College on a course to expand upon its research excellence and attract, recruit, and retain the rising stars of tomorrow. 

This support will cover costs for selected PhD students during their first year, a critical time when students are identifying their research direction and launching their studies. The gift will help attract a diverse group of talented doctoral students to Lehigh and catalyze giving from others, paving the way for the Rossin College to reach its goal of securing first-year funding for all incoming doctoral students. 

The foundation’s gift builds on the legacy of Peter C. ’48 and Ada Rossin, who established a $25 million endowment for the Rossin College in 1998, at the time the largest gift ever made to the university. 

“We are excited about the future of the Rossin College under the visionary leadership of Dr. [Stephen P.] DeWeerth, and our foundation remains supportive of the Rossin legacy,” says Joan Stephans. “We are proud to honor our parents’ commitment to give back to the next generation of Lehigh students and to help ensure that they and the University continue to represent the very best in engineering education.”

“This generous grant comes at a crucial juncture in the college’s development, and enables us to further elevate the reputation of the college and the Rossin legacy at Lehigh,” says Stephen P. DeWeerth, professor and dean of the Rossin College. “The extended Rossin family’s support for Lehigh engineering over the years has been, in a word, transformational. And it continues today, as they partner with us in establishing a creative philanthropic approach that addresses a particular challenge faced by schools like ours in recruiting top students into graduate programs.

“This gift will enable the Rossin College to ensure that highly recruited prospective PhD students are guaranteed full funding in the critical first year,” DeWeerth continues. “It is a wonderful example of how a large-scale fundraising initiative such as GO: The Campaign for Lehigh can manifest positive, strategic change in the near term.” 

Eliminating financial obstacles will also open doors to a more diverse pool of applicants, DeWeerth says, including more women, underrepresented minorities, and domestic students. 

“While outside grants typically sustain the work of PhD students, a cloud of financial uncertainty often hangs over the recruitment process,” says John Coulter, senior associate dean for research in the Rossin College. “Decisions made by our partners in funding agencies don’t necessarily coincide with the academic calendar, which can throw a wrench into recruiting efforts, especially for smaller and mid-sized research institutions. If research dollars aren’t in place, faculty members may have to delay their outreach until proposals are funded. This, in turn, forces prospective students to factor financial risk into their decisions.

“Alleviating these financial pressures clears the way for intellectually curious, dedicated students from varied backgrounds to pursue their passions through the kind of meaningful research that changes lives,” he continues. “And as our institution works to grow the impact and visibility of our faculty research leaders, this gift from The Rossin Foundation comes at a perfect moment in our evolution. Guaranteed funding will help level the playing field as Lehigh competes with larger universities for the most talented graduate students.”

P3: Blazing a new trail for STEM PhDs

Through its new Pasteur PhD Partners (P3) Fellowship, the Rossin College is also expanding opportunities for doctoral students passionate about accelerating the impact of their research via industry engagement. The P3 program, which was developed with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and involves close collaboration with industry partners, provides a unique use-inspired research track for advanced students in science and engineering disciplines. Pasteur Fellows receive a competitive stipend and full tuition for the duration of doctoral studies that are expected to be completed in four years.

According to Himanshu Jain, a professor of materials science and engineering at Lehigh and the principal investigator working with the NSF to grow and expand the program, P3 caught the agency’s attention thanks to its unique and active partnership with companies that deliver cutting-edge STEM applications across industry sectors, as well as its focus on students determined to create an immediate impact in their fields. 

“Students selected as P3 Fellows are actively involved in defining the scope of their dissertations,” he explains, “and this itself is a remarkable departure from traditional PhD studies: Working with their academic and corporate-sponsor advisers, these students forge a path that aligns their individual goals with the research objectives identified by one of the program’s external partners. The NSF is interested in potentially scaling and exporting the approach across academia, and it has been very exciting to play a role in this.” 

DeWeerth says that initiatives such as P3 and The Rossin Foundation gift demonstrate the depth of Lehigh’s commitment to supporting cutting-edge graduate opportunities.

“Working with faculty mentors, doctoral students are the engine that produces high-quality scholarship,” says DeWeerth. “Day in and day out, they are at work in the labs, writing and publishing papers, and driving progress on research questions that matter. Their intellect and productivity are at the core of Lehigh’s capacity to generate new knowledge and to create lasting impact. Their success is the university’s success. We continue to look for new and innovative ways to partner with our community—around campus and around the world—to enhance the ecosystem of support around all our graduate students.”