Brian Higgins once planned on a 9-5  job in IT after obtaining an associates degree. But mentors at Rutgers-Newark encouraged him to attend the Graduate School, where he’s working on research that could help detect groundwater contamination.

Higgins, who graduated from the School of Arts and Sciences-Newark in 2018, recently won a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) research fellowship that allows him to use his math and data science skills to explore high-tech ways of measuring water tables at Superfund sites, including locations in Newark.

Although RU-N is well-known for having one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation, it also has one of the most diverse faculties. For Higgins, that made all the difference.

“It’s such a great feeling to go into a classroom and find a professor that looks like you,’’ said Higgins, a Newark resident and graduate of the city’s Science Park High. “It’s a luxury I didn’t think would be afforded to me.’’

Studying with classmates from many backgrounds also helped Higgins find his way. “I love RU-N for being the most diverse campus I have ever stepped foot on. I can find peers that understand the struggles I might have gone through.’’

Today, Higgins is a member of Bridges to the Doctorate, an NSF program which guides undergraduates in pursuing advanced degrees and offers financial support. He plans on mentoring RU-N students who are Black men, hoping to awaken them to the opportunities graduate school can offer.

“To find a Black man doing PhD work is very rare. I just want to help people see more representation in the STEM field at this level.There needs to be enough people who have taken the journey to explain why it can be of value,’’ he said.

Before transferring to RU-N, Higgins attended Essex County Community College, where professors encouraged him to continue his studies at RU-N. At both community college and Rutgers-Newark, he participated in the Garden State LSAMP program, which supports students interested in non-medical STEM fields.

As a teen, he knew that he loved math and science but never considered a career in research. “I didn’t know what you could do with math. I could see nurses, doctors or lawyers. But a scientist –it’s hard to see yourself as a scientist if you don’t see people around you who are remotely in the STEM field,’’ he said.

In addition to encouraging other RU-N students, Higgins has also been mentoring Newark high schoolers who are interested in science.

“I want to be a spring board for other people in my community,’’ he said.