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06 February 2019

Students in the Eberly College of Science are creating communities for underrepresented groups to promote a diverse, inclusive scientific enterprise

Penn State students Sofia Roitman, Mallory Molina, and Bianka Onwumbiko (l–r)
Penn State students Sofia Roitman, Mallory Molina, and Bianka Onwumbiko (l–r)

Diversity and inclusivity are foundational to healthy, productive communities — science included. 

In January 2018, business consultancy firm McKinsey & Company published a report, "Delivering through Diversity," affirming the positive connection between corporations' culture of inclusion and diversity and their financial performance. Leading scientific organizations from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society have affirmed their commitment to inclusion and diversity in science. And several years ahead of the McKinsey report, Nature and Scientific American devoted a special joint issue to diversity. "The message is clear," they wrote. "Inclusive science is better science."

While diversity in STEM fields still lags behind societal demographics, it continues to gain momentum with increasing action from prominent institutions and the individuals that comprise them. In the Eberly College of Science, three enterprising young women are leading concurrent efforts to grow Penn State's diverse STEM communities and connect their fellow students with nationwide networks of like individuals and resources to help them succeed both academically and professionally.

Sofia Roitman, SACNAS

Sofia RoitmanSofia Roitman, a biology graduate student in the Medina lab, started Penn State's chapter of SACNAS — the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science — in 2018 and currently serves as its president.

“When I came to Penn State and saw firsthand how isolating the graduate student experience can be, I realized how important it was to have a community where you can connect with people who share your culture, your background, who have similar experiences and are going through the same things," she says. "I saw SACNAS as an opportunity to establish a community for students of underrepresented backgrounds to come together around a shared interest in the sciences and also for providing mentorship opportunities and helping students further their careers in STEM.”

Roitman credits her adviser, Mónica Medina, with inspiring her to bring SACNAS to Penn State. "Mónica is really active in this sphere," she says. "She cares a lot about outreach and fostering the success of women and minorities in the sciences, so that was what influenced me to start working on this. I was really excited to reach out and work with other students to create this community here. It’s been awesome to see everyone in the chapter get involved and excited about what we’ve started — a really great experience.”

Bianka Onwumbiko, NOBCChE

Bianka OnwumbikoBianka Onwumbiko, a biology undergraduate and Millennium Scholar, co-founded Penn State's chapter of NOBCChE — the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers — in 2018 and currently serves as the chapter's president.

“Many students, including myself, felt that we as students of color in the sciences didn’t really have a space to communicate with each other and form a community," she explains. "We wanted to be able to build our own space that was focused on the sciences, where we could build a robust cohort of students that work together in our specific disciplines while also being inclusive of all STEM students and anyone who supports diversity and inclusion in STEM."

Onwumbiko credits several faculty in the college and in the Millennium Scholars Program with helping her to get Penn State's NOBCChE chapter off the ground. "Dr. Squire Booker was extremely helpful," she says. "We needed a faculty adviser, and for him to agree to do that was extremely helpful for us. Dr. Kristin Finch has also been a huge help. She was able to get funding for us from the college, and she's always open to meeting with me for advice. And my advisers in the Millennium Scholars Program are always available for me to talk to."

Explaining her motivation to bring NOBCChE to Penn State, Onwumbiko says "I felt like there are so many students who are going through the same thing as me, it would make sense to create something we could all benefit from. I think the biggest thing is that we’ll be able to grow in a community of people working toward a common goal and going through similar things while also being able to give back to and learn from other communities through service."

Mallory Molina, TaMIA

Mallory MolinaMallory Molina, a Sloan Minority Ph.D. Scholar in the Astronomy and Astrophysics program, co-founded TaMIA — Towards a More Inclusive Astronomy — at Penn State in 2016 and co-advises the group with postdoc Angie Wolfgang and fellow graduate students Jonathan Jackson and Caleb Cañas.

When she started her doctorate at Penn State, Molina explains, it struck her that many of the resources available weren’t in her department. "I wanted to have a space in the department, itself, where if people were having problems, they could come and talk about it and be supported by people in the department. It’s nice to have people that work next to you every day understand what you’re going through and be able to support you."

"I definitely struggled a lot with feeling isolated and like I wasn’t understood when I first started," she says. "I really wanted that sense of community and support, because it was weighing on me to not feel like I could talk about issues related to gender or race or sexuality."

So, with encouragement from her adviser, Michael Eracleous — "super supportive, a pretty great guy," Molina says — she started TaMIA, which has grown to include chapters at the University of Pittsburgh and at Caltech; and Molina has plans to expand the organization even further. “I wanted to make sure that when I left Penn State I could take the responsibility with me," she explains. "I worked with Happy Valley LaunchBox, and they helped us set up a nonprofit. I've thought about expanding beyond astronomy — 'Towards a More Inclusive Academia.' I’m interested in getting more departments to have discussions like these, expanding to other institutions, trying to work on more community-based aspects and provide support to other departments in the U.S. and beyond."

College support

Nurturing the growth of these student communities, Kristin Finch, associate dean for diversity and inclusion in the Eberly College of Science, and her colleagues Artemio Cardenas and Bridget Deromedi in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion are working to connect them with similar groups across the University and provide them with the resources and support they need to succeed.

"To our underrepresented minority students — you're here because you've earned your place here, and you deserve to be here," Finch says. "It's important to find your community. It doesn't have to be in science, specifically. But you have to be intentional about it. If you're having trouble finding a community, come talk to me or anyone in my office and we'll be happy to share the resources we have with you!"

Bridget Deromedi, Artemio Cardenas, and Kristin Finch (l–r) represent the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in the Eberly College of Science.
Bridget Deromedi, Artemio Cardenas, and Kristin Finch (l–r) represent the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in the Eberly College of Science.



[ Seth R. Palmer ]


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