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Changing Lives and Building a Pipeline Through Sustainable Research Pathways

In a world where science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) research is essential to the wellbeing and prosperity of humanity, it is shocking to hear that the number of high quality scientists is not keeping up with the growing demand. Although there are many reasons attributing to this shortage, one important reason is the higher rates of attrition among various groups of individuals (i.e. women, racial minorities, individuals with disabilities, individuals from low socio-economic status, etc.). But, what if this didn’t have to be our reality? What if there was a way to increase the quantity and quality of scientists AND push for the inclusion of underrepresented and underprivileged individuals in STEM? With a commitment to sustainability and diversity and inclusion, this is exactly what the Sustainable Research Pathways (SRP) Program strives to accomplish. And based on the remarks from previous participants of the SRP Program, it seems that our work has had a significant impact on the lives of the faculty and students who participate.

In 2015, Sustainable Horizons Institute (SHI) and Berkeley Lab piloted the SRP Program with the overarching goal of supporting faculty and students from underrepresented groups while also addressing the needs of the Computing Science workforce. The major objective of SRP is to connect faculty working with students from underrepresented groups with scientists at Berkeley Lab and to support them in building connections and research collaborations. Since its beginning just a few years ago, the SRP Program has supported over forty faculty members in attending a matching workshop at Berkeley lab. The program has also fostered over 20 research connections between Department of Energy scientists and faculty members, which has allowed for over forty students to have the unmatchable opportunity of participating in summer research at a prestigious Department of Energy national laboratories.

SRP consists a fast-paced matching workshop aimed at facilitating connections for summer research experiences. After all applications are submitted and participants are chosen, selected faculty travel to Berkeley, California to attend the matching workshop. The workshop serves to find overlapping research interests between faculty and lab staff. During the workshop, invited faculty are given the opportunity to showcase their research and abilities by participating in a poster blitz and poster session. Faculty are also able to explore their interest in Berkeley Lab Staff by attending research presentations given by the lab staff. The workshop concludes with speed meetings between lab staff and faculty to facilitate research matches. The matches that are developed during the workshop have the ability to blossom into a research collaboration that begins with a summer experience.

Dr. Sally Ellingson has derived many benefits from her participation in SRP.

The faculty participants for the SRP program are selected based on a number of criteria, including their proposed research ideas, interests, and motivation for participating, among other things. Since the start of the program, over forty faculty members from numerous institutions around the U.S. have attended the SRP workshop, and those who do attend have been impressed with the benefits they derive from their participation. Dr. Sally Ellingson, an Assistant Professor in the Biomedical Informatics department at University of Kentucky, attended the SRP workshop in 2015 and has served as a visiting faculty member at Berkeley Lab both summers since then. During the matching workshop, Dr. Ellingson met with multiple lab staff to discuss her research interests. To her surprise, many of the lab staff she spoke with had interest in collaborating with her. “I was not expecting to make so many matches!” shared Dr. Ellingson. In the end, Dr. Ellingson made a connection with Dr. Bert de Jong, a highly-distinguished Group Leader and Senior Scientist at Berkeley Lab. Overall, their collaboration has been fruitful, resulting in three conference presentations, one published paper, and the unique opportunity for Dr. Ellingson to present a peer-reviewed paper on their collaboration at the International Conference on Computational Sciences in Switzerland.

The goal of the SRP Program is to not only support faculty in building research collaborations, but also to develop a pipeline of diverse candidates through students who participate. To support this goal, matched faculty are expected to involve their students in summer research by either participating in faculty/student teams or by sending one or more unaccompanied student intern(s). Over the past two summers, the SRP Program has supported more than 40 students in visiting Berkeley Lab for a ten-week research program. During this experience, students work alongside faculty and lab staff to gain vital skills and knowledge while developing solutions to pressing scientific and engineering problems. Thomas Corcoran, a graduate student from Hood College and a 2017 summer research participant, shared the lasting impact of his experience:

Participating in the summer research program has allowed me to make contacts and to conduct work that will set me apart from other candidates when I apply for doctoral programs this coming winter. I do not believe that I would have been qualified to apply for top-tier graduate schools without the experience and connections that I am gaining from this program. Participating in this program has put far more options on the table for me – school-wise AND career-wise – than I ever could have hoped for before.

Corcoran’s professor, Dr. Xinlian Liu, was delighted to see the vast benefits his students received from participating in the summer research experience. “My students are awed and thrilled. They will likely pursue a scientific research career path because of this experience” said Dr. Liu. However, Dr. Liu also shared that his students weren’t the only ones impacted by the program. “I got to enter a very interesting field (protein structure) that I have not looked into in detail before,” shared Dr. Liu, “This will help with my teaching and research after I return to my regular teaching job”. Dr. Liu also found inspiration from his connections with lab scientists, such as Dr. Silvia Crivelli, who are passionate about research and education.

Amir Kucharski presenting his research at SIAM CSE17.

 

Amir Kucharski, an undergraduate student of Dr. Ellingson’s and a 2016 summer research participant, was also thoroughly impressed by the benefits his participation brought him. In addition to the skills he derived from his research experience, Kucharski also found advantages because of his opportunity to network at the lab. “Learning about new projects and networking has really strengthened my ability to think as a researcher and complete projects. I’m a better thinker on a wider variety of topics and if I need help, I know where I can go” said Kucharski.

 

Dr. Bert de Jong  worked alongside Kucharski during his summer experience, and was pleased with Kucharski’s curiosity and perseverance. “My greatest satisfaction is to see students learn new things and grow” shared Dr. de Jong. Like many of the other participants, the SRP Program also helped open up new opportunities for Kucharski. After participating in the full 10-week research program at Berkeley Lab, Kucharski was able to attend the 2017 Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (SIAM CSE17) to present his research findings and participate in the Sustainable Horizons Institute Broader Engagement program.

 

Other summer research participants, Itzhel Dimas and Austin Chung, also had the opportunity to share their research at Broader Engagement. Here they are working on their presentation.

The faculty and students involved in the SRP Program share a lasting impact from their experience. However, they are not the only ones. The lab staff who work side-by-side with the faculty and students during the summer research are also impressed with the program.  Dr. Dan Martin, a Staff Scientist at Berkeley Lab, was pleased to find that the SRP Program helps students visualize themselves as researchers:

All of the parts of the program I’ve been involved with aim to get students in under-represented groups to see themselves in our shoes — as people with careers in STEM research. I think that’s the first step for anybody to start the long path toward these positions — you’ve got to see yourself in that place you’re trying to go; otherwise you won’t have any motivation to follow the difficult road to get there.

Dr. Daniel Graves, a Research Scientist in the Applied Numerical Algorithms Group at Berkeley Lab, also noticed that the students he had the pleasure to work with were inspired by their research experience. “I think the program provides undergraduates with a feel for how research really works.  When these students get to know real people doing research, it might also make it easier for them to picture themselves as researchers. This might inspire them to strive that much harder in their own careers” he shared.

The 2016 SRP group!

The SRP Program is one way that SHI and Berkeley lab work to support faculty and students from underrepresented groups in making research collaborations that wouldn’t have been possible for them otherwise. After only two years, the program has shown to be very successful, and has received high remarks from all involved parties. Because of the program’s continued success, SHI and Berkeley Lab have again partnered to facilitate the SRP program in 2017. Applications for the 2017 matching workshop are now open and can be accessed here. The deadline to apply is Friday, September 29th, 2017.