Widening Doorways to STEM Education

Growing up in Minnesota as the child of Indian immigrants, Bala Chaudhary, associate professor of environmental studies, loved spending time outdoors with her family. But she never imagined, back then, that she would her devote her professional life to researching the ecosystems she was exploring on foot.  

"I didn't see people like me studying environmental sciences, so I wasn't drawn to a career in that field until, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I got a work-study job in an ecology lab," says Chaudhary.  "That was the first time I thought I was smart enough to be a scientist. Our lab was working on plant-fungal interactions and soil ecology. That's what got me hooked."

There were, to be sure, twists and turns on the path from that lab to the one Chaudhary now runs at Dartmouth. She worked for four years in environmental consulting before entering a graduate program at Northern Arizona University. "I had two babies in graduate school," Chaudhary says. "So I dropped out of full-time science to be a stay-at-home mom. I was an adjunct professor. I was a lecturer. I became a non-tenured track faculty member. I came to Dartmouth just last year. I think it's important for students to see not just the end product, but all the steps it took for me to get where I wanted to go."

That's why Chaudhary freely shares her story with students who may at first find graduate school daunting. They, in turn, tell her about their own struggles.

"When I first became a professor, minoritized students were coming to me sharing troubles I had also had, including classroom microaggressions. That's when I thought, we really all need to tackle this together," she says.

With a colleague from Loyola University Chicago and a team of research assistants, Chaudhary began forming focus groups with students of color in environmental degree programs, asking them about their academic experiences, including barriers they faced.

"We asked what supports have worked for them, what they would do to improve the field," Chaudhary says. "Students of color are really experts on these issues. They hold amazing, specialized knowledge about what we as educators can do to improve racial and ethnic diversity in our programs."

Chaudhary's research about obstacles and opportunities in science education has been widely published, including an article in PLOS Computational Biology, "Ten Simple Rules for Building an Antiracist Lab."

Encouraging and Empowering Scholars from All Backgrounds

Chaudhary's colleagues are also taking concrete steps to make sure that a Guarini education is equitable and inclusive. Theresa Ong, an assistant professor of environmental studies, came to Dartmouth in 2019 to teach and study food systems from ecological, social, and political perspectives.

"My family immigrated from Malaysia to the Los Angeles area when I was three years old, and we were not well off," she says. In high school, she sought out support from a nonprofit organization called One Voice, whose Scholars Program helps students from under-resourced communities earn grants and scholarships from selective institutions of higher learning. Ong attended Williams College in Massachusetts, and received her PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

"When you're in a high school that is historically underperforming, you can feel like a big fish in a small pond," says Ong. "But when you get to an institution where there are many people with  privilege, the challenges become clear, because a lot of extra work needs to be done on your part to get to the same level of understanding and basic knowledge that other people already have. I think that's the challenge in academia: too many incoming students find themselves feeling like they're not enough."

To help dispel that myth, Ong and others in Guarini's Ecology, Evolution, Environment, and Society Program (EEES) have started the EEES Scholars Program dedicated to advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the graduate admissions process. Highly motivated students from throughout the U.S. spend three days on campus learning how to apply to graduate schools while deepening their understanding of EEES at Dartmouth. There are workshops about how to find and choose graduate science and interdisciplinary programs, create curriculum vitae, and showcase research during mock interviews and poster sessions. Scholars also meet faculty in informal social settings.

"We want at Dartmouth to put our best foot forward in attracting students from all backgrounds, but we don't shy away from talking openly in the program about the experience of belonging to a minority group in a place where you may feel isolated from communities that you know well," says Ong.

The recent announcement of a $25 million gift from Jim and Penny Coulter to seed STEM opportunities for underrepresented groups at Dartmouth aligns perfectly with these ambitions.

It's important to break through that isolation by connecting students of all ages and backgrounds who share a passion for science, says Beatriz Mercado, who is pursuing a PhD in molecular and cellular biology. Born in New York City to Dominican parents, and a first- generation college student, Mercado attended a community college before graduating from John Jay College in 2019. This year, she became the founder and president of Dartmouth's chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

"I realized that our school is diversifying and recruiting more students of color. But we don't really have enough resources to support us fully yet. So the new SACNAS chapter is representative of what I think Dartmouth is becoming—a place that provides training at a professional level while also creating inclusive communities," says Mercado. "As a first-year graduate student, I didn't feel a strong sense of community, so I wanted to create one that uplifts, mentors, celebrates different backgrounds, and inspires each of us to follow our aspirations."   

In just a few months, SACNAS has been making its mark, both on and off campus.

"We had about 60 people at our launch party, from all walks of life," says Mercado. "Dartmouth's SACNAS chapter is open to everyone. We've also had a potluck supper, serving dishes representative of our cultures. And some of us went to the SACNAS conference in Puerto Rico, where we hopefully recruited talented students to Dartmouth. It's important that we put our name out there and let people know that Dartmouth is an inclusive community, and if they choose to attend graduate school here, there are resources and ways to support them."

It's also crucial, Mercado says, for SACNAS to encourage budding scientists in the Upper Valley.

"We are partnering with a really great nonprofit here called Nerd Squad, which sponsors hands-on science experiments in elementary schools," says Mercado.  "We're also helping the New Hampshire Academy of Science by mentoring of middle and high school students, so they can see that there are other scientists who look like them. Representation is so important."

Jose Delgado, a fifth-year PhD candidate in biochemistry and cell biology who serves as the acting vice president of SACNAS, hopes to see the group expand its membership and activities beyond Guarini. Describing himself as a first-generation Mexican-American and the first in his family to attend college, Delgado says SACNAS plays an important role in diversifying the STEM workforce.

"When I entered the Guarini School in 2018, the population was predominantly white," Delgado says.  "But over the years, the school has really taken diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives seriously. That's great to see, because there's a psychological comfort that people innately feel when they are surrounded by others from backgrounds similar to theirs."

That's why Guarini is putting out the welcome mat for prospective, as well as current students.  Talented non-Dartmouth undergraduates considering graduate school are invited to attend the Academic Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (ASURE), which focuses on academic research, networking, and mentoring.

Bianca Romo, a PhD candidate in cancer biology, was a student coordinator for ASURE.

A native of Artesia, a small town in New Mexico, and the first in her family to attend college, Romo received financial help to attend St. Mary's University in El Paso, Texas, and snagged summer science internships at the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University, and Yale University. Yet despite her impressive track record, she arrived in Hanover unsure of whether she could succeed in graduate school.

"After the first week, I remember calling back home to my mom, just crying and saying, 'I can't do it. I don't know what I was thinking coming out this far, like what am I supposed to do?' And her saying on the phone, 'You wanted to do this, and you're going to stay there.'"  

Not only did Romo stay—she's finishing up her sixth year—she's blazed trails for incoming students, most recently as the secretary of SACNAS.  

"You don't always even know what you don't know" she says, about navigating the shoals of academia. But day by day, year by year, Guarini students and faculty are closing that knowledge gap as they build new communities of living and learning.