Building a community of belonging

Graduate students attend the 150th anniversary birthday party. Photo Brittany Hosea-Small

The College of Chemistry’s graduate Student Diversity Program

The problems that chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering tackle impact all different populations of people. So, it’s important to have scientists participating in the development and the discovery be from those communities. It also adds to creativity — it makes more interesting science.

Anne Baranger, Associate Dean, College of Chemistry

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) isn’t a topic that’s always addressed in the physical sciences. And when it is, it’s often given only superficial attention. “STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) isn’t just a conversation about adding diversity,” emphasizes College of Chemistry Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Brice Yates. “Diversity in STEM is about how we interact with our students in our spaces — are these spaces inclusive and welcoming for students of all backgrounds?” 

This perspective — changing the narrative and weaving DEI into the educational fabric — is the foundation upon which the College of Chemistry’s Graduate Student Diversity Program (CCGDP) was built.

Launched in Spring 2021 and led by Anne Baranger and Brice Yates, CCGDP supported nine graduate student-led initiatives targeted at improving the pipeline of underrepresented students into graduate school, recruiting, and supporting DEI in the College’s graduate student population, and working with leadership to improve the diversity climate within the College.

“Our initial vision was to create a program that would highlight and foster all of the wonderful DEI efforts our graduate students were already doing, on top of their research and coursework,” explains Baranger. “We wanted to have a way for them to receive formal recognition from the College and have their work and activism be more visible to the broader community.”

The College’s program also provided for a 1-year fellowship, the Graduate Student DE&I Scholar. The annual award will support a graduate student who wishes to gain significant expertise in DEI program development and assessment. This first recipient was Kay Xia, a Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry.

The CCGDP was funded through a Graduate Diversity Pilot Program grant from UC Berkeley’s Graduate Division. Graduate Division established the program in July of 2020, awarding grants totaling $1.5 million over 4 years to nine departments across campus to support and improve departmental climate for students, staff, and faculty; support faculty graduate student mentorship; and build diversity in graduate outreach and admissions.

In the College of Chemistry, graduate student interest in CCGDP was overwhelming. Initially, eleven proposals were submitted by a total of 29 students. Of those, nine proposals led by 25 graduate students in cohort groups were chosen to be part of the program. Though not originally budgeted, to acknowledge everyone’s efforts, all 29 students who submitted proposals received a stipend of $1000.

(l to r) Audrey Reeves and Amanda Bischoff at first DE&I poster session. Photo Mindy Rex.

The spring 2021 program culminated in December with a poster session where students presented their DEI work. The College has been supporting six graduate student-led projects during this spring 2022 semester.

Student cohorts leading the nine initial projects also received ongoing support from Anne Baranger and Brice Yates, who met regularly with the groups to advise, ensure progress, and help them publish their work. An added advantage to program participation is the valuable DEI skill set that will benefit graduate students well into their professional careers. Yates, with his Ph.D. in social sciences, helped the cohorts get grounded in the methodology, rigor and theoretical frameworks surrounding equity and inclusion. The students also learned how to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts.

“I’ve really pivoted in my own research — learning more about how to lessen the barriers and improve the experience of groups historically excluded from STEM,” explained Audrey Reeves, a fifth-year Chemistry graduate student participant. “It’s one thing to want to help and it’s another to assess whether you are helping.”

Diverse Approaches Toward a Common Goal

Many student initiatives began well before the College formalized its Graduate Diversity Program but found their DEI footing there. Originally launched in 2020 and inspired by a similar program in the Department of Molecular Cellular Biology, the Transfer Student Mentorship program (CoC-TSMP) led by Audrey Reeves and Amanda Bischoff paired incoming undergraduate Chemistry transfer students with graduate student mentors to improve their sense of inclusion in the department. Exposing transfer students to research was a primary part of their initiative. “Getting into research labs is a huge step in academia. And so far, our program has made an impact. More of our students have gotten into research labs compared to transfer students who did not attend,” says Reeves.

Like all participants, Reeves’ passion for making a difference comes from the heart. “You’ve heard the phrase ‘leaky pipeline’ where people fall out as they move through academia. But they don’t just fall out, they are actively pushed out. I’ve witnessed this in my own work, as well as in my lab, and nobody deserves that. Everyone deserves to be able to follow their dreams.”

Marisol Navarro echoes Audrey’s sentiments. “We need to recognize that not everyone starts at the same point, people have different barriers. We should be doing everything we can to support all kinds of students, to include all those perspectives and ideas in science.”

Navarro’s program, NODE (Normalization of Diversity and Equity) which she co-led with Julia Martin, focused on mentoring first-year graduate students entering the department. Like CoC-TSMP, NODE grew out of an existing effort, though one not originally targeted at URM students. Now in its second year, with the addition of Angel Gonzalez-Valero, the group’s activities give first year URM students a space where they can ask questions and talk about their graduate experience outside of science and what’s typical in the lab.

Observing how the disparate math backgrounds of incoming graduate students can negatively impact their first-semester experience, academic trajectory, and well-being, Avishek Das and his team launched the week-long Mathematics Bootcamp. “Not having enough math background can be traumatic for graduate students — we saw this firsthand,” reveals Avishek. Their program used innovative remote, and in-person active learning strategies tailored to students’ needs to improve graduate students’ skills and confidence.

Like other initiatives, the bootcamp had already been in place before being included in CCGDP. And while they were also already working to measure DEI impact, being part of the program enhanced their efforts by connecting them with the other groups under and outside of the program’s umbrella.

“Most fulfilling is knowing there’s a huge team of grad students in the College of Chemistry and beyond who all support each other in these initiatives,” Avishek points out. “We’ve heard speakers from other departments in or even outside of Berkeley who bring different perspectives on how to further DEI initiatives in the STEM context. It’s motivating to see everyone working so hard.” Along with Das, the Mathematics Bootcamp team included Orion Cohen, Dipti Jasrasaria, Elliot Rossomme, and Rachel Clune. They, as well as two other groups — CoC-TSMP and cDIBS — plan to publish their efforts.

Baranger and Yates’ admiration for the groups’ passion and efforts keeps them motivated. “DEI isn’t an afterthought,” says Yates. “It’s a component they infuse into their daily work.” Added Baranger, “I love working with students because they teach me so much.”

While a continuation plan for the College’s Graduate Diversity Program is not formalized, the vision is that the student-led programs can be ongoing. As students graduate, a diversity of fresh faces and ideas can join the community to sustain programs that are working well and potentially launch new programs.

Additional Spring 2021 Program Initiatives

Diversity and Inclusion Focus Group (DIFG) created spaces, and invited guest speakers, for nuanced and in-depth discussions on topics requested by students. The team included Tarini Hardikar, Connie Robinson, Rebecca Hanscam.

Transformative Pedagogy for Chemists and Chemical Engineers course sought to situate, center, and evaluate the current model for scientific research in the context of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, and religion. The group, including Helen Bergstrom, Adrian Davey, Anthony Abel, Jeremy Adams, taught a course in fall 2021 open to faculty, staff, graduate, and undergraduate students.

Department of Chemistry Annual Climate Survey and Departmental Information and Brainstorming Session (cDIBS) have been ongoing efforts in the chemistry department since spring of 2018. They aim to assess issues affecting inclusivity in the department, understand the priorities and concerns of various departmental stakeholders, and form actionable policies and programs for improvement. Team partners Daniel Brauer and Jamie Gleason launched a cDIBS survey and held a town hall.

Improving culture and inclusion in Berkeley CBE through mindful redesign and expansion of new student orientation and early Fall semester departmental events. The team leading this project —Francis Cunningham, Lorena Grundy, David Brown — proposed tying new student orientation with DEI seminars, trainings, and/or workshops on community-building and creating awareness of DEI issues in STEM. The group participated in a joint orientation with iMCB before the start of the fall semester.

Monthly Mentorship Meeting for Faculty. This project’s team aspired to engage faculty members with material on different mentorship styles and techniques and encourage co-sharing of their mentoring experiences, with surveys to examine how the material and discussion impacted faculty members’ perspectives and awareness. Rebecca Hanscam and Tarini Hardikar partnered on this initiative.

Women in Chemistry Initiative (WICI) explored opportunities for expanding the impact of WICI, increasing visibility and further serving the College of Chemistry. The team of Matthew Rollings, Kiera Wilhelm, Kaydren Orcutt, Maria Paley, Rachel Clune hosted a spring social and trivia night to increase visibility and participation.

Science and technology are an enormous force — they shape humanity and people’s lives in a very real way. “So, everyone needs to actively and democratically participate to keep it accountable, to ensure it’s used for people’s benefit, and not to further oppression that already exists in society. It’s going to determine the future for all of us.

Avishek Das