“What are you looking for in a graduate school?” That was the question posed to a panel of visiting undergraduates one April afternoon in UW’s Biotechnology Center.
The answers were varied: a supportive mentor, interesting research, collaborations. But one answer stood out, mentioned by every one of the panelists: a sense of belonging.
“I want to feel safe and included,” said one student. Another hit at the heart of the sentiment, saying, “As a Black woman, I want to know I have a home wherever I go.”
The undergrad panelists all hailed from Howard University, a historically Black institution. They had come to Madison to visit with staff and graduate students from UW’s Science and Medicine Graduate Research Scholars (SciMed GRS), a program created to support underrepresented graduate students in the biological sciences.
Abbey Thompson MS’06, director of SciMed GRS, sat in the front row, nodding. What the Howard students want is precisely what she and Sara Patterson, now an emeritus professor of horticulture, aimed to provide when they started the program in 2008 — a home and a community for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students who often relocate far from relatives and friends.
“The program is really about connection and relationships. That’s at the core of what we do,” says Thompson. “Knowing the students is so important. It’s really a community, a family. Everyone is invested in the students’ support and success.”
SciMed GRS is one of several graduate research scholar communities at UW formed to serve underrepresented students. Not only are many of these students beginning the challenge of graduate careers, but they’re also members of the BIPOC community on a predominantly white campus. Being a person of color in a science field where you don’t see many people who look like you can intensify the obstacles and isolation of graduate school. The SciMed program gives them a support system of helpful staff and empathetic peers.
“I’ve been able to connect with other fellows of SciMed and build a community,” says Sierra Love, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in genetics. “There are times when graduate school gets to be extremely tough, and having support from those in the program is what keeps me going. My favorite part of SciMed is the family that I’ve gained.”
In addition to a community, SciMed GRS gives BIPOC graduate students resources, funding, and opportunities for professional development. With Patterson’s recent retirement, the program is now led by Thompson, faculty director Beth Meyerand, and program manager Michelle Parmenter PhD’17. They work with more than 40 graduate programs and departments across four UW schools and colleges: CALS, the School of Medicine and Public Health, the School of Pharmacy, and the School of Veterinary Medicine.
The program provides support throughout the graduate students’ time on campus. Incoming students are nominated by their graduate programs, and as soon as students accept the offer to attend UW–Madison, they are brought into their cohort. The cohort model provides a community that connects them to students they may not otherwise meet from across campus or different schools.
“The cohort inspired instant camaraderie as we are all underrepresented students who all moved to Madison from around the country to begin graduate school in the biosciences,” says Robbie Mejia, a first-year biochemistry graduate student from southern California. “SciMed GRS facilitated some of our first meetings before our first semester even began. That went a long way in making me feel desired by the community.”
Once on campus, first-year students participate in a seminar to provide a solid base and strong interpersonal connections before they get entrenched in their research and classwork. Second-year students take part in sessions that prepare them for the expectations and rigors of their preliminary exam, an important doctoral program milestone. Monthly group meetings for the entire program, such as social gatherings and lectures, bring the different cohorts together and provide another opportunity for networking, support, and fellowship.
Program staff work with students individually as often as possible. “We do a lot of one-on-one advising,” says Thompson. “We help them connect with resources and sort through different choices or ways to work through a situation. We want them to know we’re here to support them in whatever direction they go.”
Peer mentors play an important role in SciMed GRS as well. They help with the first-year seminar and assist students with their adjustment to graduate school. Current students also join meetings with prospective students to share their experiences and act as a resource if there are follow-up questions or concerns.
“I was given a peer mentor, before I even started my program, who helped with everything from apartment hunting to facilitating cross-campus collaborations,” says Corri Hamilton PhD’22, who earned her degree in plant pathology in April. “The experience was so impactful that I later became a peer mentor myself and started a peer mentoring program modeled off SciMed GRS within my department.”
The last couple of years have thrown a few wrenches in the program’s finely tuned gears. The COVID pandemic forced new methods of connection as Thompson and her staff switched to virtual office hours and online seminars. At the same time, Black Lives Matter protests and the national dialogue around racism had a dramatic effect on the lives of many students in the program.
“The SciMed staff and students helped me navigate a lot of unknowns and were a consistent buffer from systemic discrimination in Madison,” says Hamilton, who was raised in rural Mississippi by her single Black mother and her grandmother. “The community support provided through SciMed GRS is invaluable.”
For Thompson and Meyerand, it was the students who are to be admired for how they face the challenges of the last two years. “The grad students blew me away by how they navigated through all that,” Thompson says. “Their resilience, perseverance, and flexibility have been truly inspiring,” Meyerand added.
With the learning curve of the pandemic and almost 15 years of operation now behind it, the program is looking for new strategies to enhance the experience of BIPOC graduate students. One future focal point: students interested in faculty career paths. Meyerand hopes to find more ways to support those students given the underrepresentation of BIPOC individuals in the faculty ranks. This past year, she and Parmenter provided a research mentor training program for faculty mentors of SciMed students to help them understand the dynamics and needs of underrepresented students in their labs.
“Culturally responsive mentoring is critical to the success of young scientists of diverse backgrounds,” explains Meyerand. “It can be learned, and it guides faculty mentors to understand the sources and impact of bias on diverse graduate trainees to improve the training environment.”
SciMed staff also aim to expand alumni network connections. The program has more than 200 alumni, and the opportunities they provide continue to grow. Staff stay in contact with many of the program’s alumni and often ask them to serve as resources, including as contacts for new graduates looking for jobs or sounding boards for students facing challenges in their labs. The visit from the Howard University undergraduates grew out of an alumni connection.
Expanding those connections and opportunities shouldn’t be difficult. Many of the alumni want to give back and still look at SciMed GRS as an integral part of their graduate careers — a testament to the program and its people.
“Having the community that SciMed provided helped me to feel like I wasn’t alone,” says Nicholas Santistevan MS’17, PhD’21, a staff scientist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, who earned a degree in genetics. “SciMed was like a family, and they helped me get through the many challenges that I encountered.”
For some, the program shaped not only their time in graduate school but who they are in their careers today. “SciMed GRS was critical in supporting me and helping me find my voice as a scientist and an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says Esteban J. Quiñones MS’18, PhD’19, who earned his degrees in agricultural and applied economics and now works as a researcher at Mathematica in Chicago.
Lorraine Rodriguez PhD’19 still talks with SciMed staff members when career questions arise. “To this day, both Abbey and Sara are among my go-to people when it comes to my career path,” says the plant breeding and genetics graduate. “Even as an alum of the program, I know I can always count on them, and that is a unique and special thing about SciMed.”
Having defended her thesis in April, Hamilton now joins the ranks of those alumni who hold the program and the SciMed family in high regard. As she looks forward to her postdoctoral work in Vancouver, British Columbia, and ultimately becoming a professor, she views the staff of SciMed as inspiration.
“They make you feel like the program was built just for you,” she says. “My favorite part of SciMed was feeling ‘seen’ by the staff. They champion the dreams of students like me, and I am indebted to them. I hope to be as impactful.”
Hamilton seems to be reaching that aspiration — while she was in graduate school, she helped pay her brother’s way through college, and she served as a student representative for a SciMed GRS committee and executive board. Now she has set her sights on leading a lab focused on research that includes stakeholders and students with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets.
“We know that research opportunities and quality mentorship increase student learning and STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] persistence,” says Hamilton. “Through my research, I aim to shrink the opportunity gap for underrepresented minority STEM students and foster creative minds for all students, providing a community where everyone feels they belong.”
Sidebar: Communities Across Campus
SciMed GRS is part of a growing network of organizations developed to support underrepresented students on the UW campus. Read more.
This article was posted in Features, Summer 2022 and tagged campus community, graduate students, Science and Medicine Graduate Research Scholars (SciMed GRS).