STEM graduate students advocate for increased diversity through program GRIT

The student-led initiative encourages students, faculty and staff to value and pursue diversity in incoming classes and events

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GRIT Day was held in Pinn Hall Auditorium centered around the data and overview about the program. During the evening, roundtable discussions with students, faculty and staff were held about the successes and failures of GRIT and how to improve upon these issues.

Courtesy Darius Carter

No contribution is insignificant when it comes to fostering diversity and inclusion at the University, particularly in STEM fields, according to Brittany Martínez, co-founder and president of the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team. With the mentality that small steps forward eventually lead to substantial progress, students, faculty and staff from assorted cultures have joined forces in an attempt to recruit and retain more heterogeneous graduate classes.

GRIT is a student-led organization with faculty and staff from the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program, the Department of Biology in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Three graduate students at the University of Chicago founded GRIT in 2017 to promote the recruitment and retention of women, underrepresented minorities, members of the LGBTQ community and those with disabilities to their biological and physical science curriculums. When Janet Cross, Assistant Dean for the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program, met one of the GRIT co-founders at a professional society meeting two years later, she realized such an institution had the potential to thrive at the University.

“The diversity, equity and inclusion space is one that I think is very important for our graduate programs and students,” Cross said. “I want to see this organization become a nucleus of that community.”

Dr. Cross invited the co-founders to speak to students and faculty from the Biomedical Sciences Department, the Biology Department and the Engineering Department at the University about GRIT’s mission and the feasibility of introducing the organization to Grounds. 

As a result of what became the first annual GRIT Day in 2018, several graduate students formed their own GRIT organization at the University. Today GRIT aids in coordinating efforts to diversify graduate student populations across the Biomedical Sciences and Biology Departments and the Engineering School.

During the 2018-2019 academic year, Brittany Martínez, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Pharmacology, and Kristopher Rawls, a recent alumnus of the Biomedical Engineering Department, championed the new initiative by sharing GRIT’s goals with faculty, students and staff across Grounds.

“We want our students to feel like they are in a place of comfort, that they fit in, where they don’t feel different for any particular reason or stressed about some aspect of the culture, about their relationships with the faculty or just with the town and the University in general,” said Robert Cox, associate professor of biology and director of graduate studies in biology.

Martínez and her colleagues also collaborated with pre-existing groups on Grounds with similar goals of encouraging inclusion in STEM fields, such as the Graduate Society for Women Engineers, the Black Graduate and Professional Student Organization and the Organization for UnderRepresented Students. The nascent network cooperates to advance diversity and inclusion from the moment students decide to apply for graduate programs to their time at the University and beyond.

As part of the recruitment process, GRIT members help lead round table discussions on diversity and inclusion during visits to Grounds for prospective students for the Biomedical Sciences and Biomedical Engineering programs.

Furthermore, GRIT members collected and analyzed data about the demographics of the class accepted into BIMS, Biology and the Engineering School in the past few years. Their findings directly contradict the claim that graduate programs lack students from under-represented groups because such individuals do not apply in the first place because the applicant pool is itself diverse.

The GRIT council, comprised of student and faculty representatives from each of the departments involved, sought to take its message of diversity to all of the faculty and staff within the participating departments and, most importantly, to potential graduate students.

“GRIT is a liaison between the students and faculty,” Martínez said. “[W]e’ve got a really great group of faculty and students that are really willing to put forth some extra effort to make the University a more inclusive place.”

For example, Cross and several GRIT members attended the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Anaheim, Calif. and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science in Honolulu, Hawaii this past fall. While at these events, current graduate students and faculty discussed their efforts to increase diversity at the University.

“The major goals are to have a community of students and faculty who are dedicated and committed to whatever it takes to help diversify our scientific community as a whole,” Cross said. “That includes bringing in a diverse class of graduate students, making sure they succeed once they’re here, positioning them for successful careers after they’re done and helping them find the resources they need to achieve all of those different goals.”

The second annual GRIT Day took place last semester Oct. 8. Nearly 80 faculty, staff and students attended the event and proposed GRIT members take steps to understand why graduate students leave the University or why they decide not to attend in the first place. Their suggestions including sending surveys to applicants who declined to attend the University, interviewing students who chose to leave and increasing faculty support. Through efforts like these, attendees hoped GRIT could help build an academic community that is more accessible and inviting for a broad range of people.

While the data GRIT collected and analyzed for the most recent round of admissions could not be made available to The Cavalier Daily, Martínez noted that the results for 2019 showed a marked improvement in the demographic imbalances of all departments, especially within the Biomedical Sciences Department, which, she said, recruited one of its most diverse classes ever.

She attributed this change to increased efforts to recruit racially and ethnically diverse students that attend the University’s research experiences for undergraduate students and the Biomedical Sciences Program’s decision to waive the GRE requirement, a standardized assessment needed to apply to many graduate schools, in 2018.

“That opened the floodgates,” Martínez said. “We got so many amazing and diverse students and that’s seen in the numbers.”

For their most recent project in late 2019, the GRIT council partnered with Women in Medical Sciences to co-author a request for the University to invite professors of varied backgrounds to create a variety of speaker series. The letter offers suggestions for ways to fulfill this appeal, including consulting students about the types of speakers they would appreciate. After receiving the signatures of nearly 17 other organizations on Grounds, GRIT and WIMS distributed the letter to the faculty and staff that plan seminars. Currently, the heads of two of the three programs participating in GRIT have committed to upholding the petition.

“There’s a really important aspect about seeing your own potential in people that are in positions that you’re aspiring to,” said Amy Clobes, director of graduate programs for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Having a diverse set of speakers and models that show that [this kind of scientific and technical work] is accessible and can serve as mentors or examples that are relatable to the identities of the student body.”

For the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year, GRIT will concentrate its energies on recruiting events and a town hall focused on retention. Through these endeavors, GRIT hopes to become one of the core groups on Grounds that encourage and support a diverse student population.

“The one thing we really try to push as GRIT is ‘what are actionable items we know we can bite off and know that we can do?’” Martínez said. “If you can make small changes that impact students positively, then that’s a win, no matter how small they are.”

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