Bright Scientists Supporting Diversity – The CSGF and BE Connection

The Department of Energy’s Computational Science Graduate Fellowship (DOE CSGF) is one of the most prestigious fellowships in the United States. Created in 1991, the CSGF Program’s mission is to increase the supply of high quality scientists and to better prepare the future generation of leaders in the computational science field. With an acceptance rate of only about 3%, it is clear that the CSGF program seeks out the brightest scientists around.

Dr. Mary Ann Leung giving a presentation as the Program Manager for the CSGF Program.

Before founding Sustainable Horizons Institute, Mary Ann Leung was a fellow in the CSGF Program. Leung was later asked to take a great program and make it even better by assuming the role of CSGF program manager. During her five-year tenure, she designed and implemented program activities aimed at community building, career, professional, and leadership development, as well as diversity and inclusion. Throughout her time with the CSGF Program, Leung built strong relationships and connections with many of the program’s fellows and alums. These relationships have proved to be important, and have fostered an incredible connection between the CSGF Program and the Broader Engagement (BE) Program.

When Leung first expanded the BE Program to the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics 2015 Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (SIAM CSE15), the connection she had made to the CSGF Program was of great significance. Six CSGF alums and two CSGF steering committee members served as volunteer mentors to 2015 BE participants. Again, in 2017, CSGF played a large role in partnering with BE, as seven CSGF alums and two CSGF steering committee members served as volunteers, and two CSGF alums sent their students to participate in the BE Program.

Ashlee Ford Versypt accepting her Howes Scholar Award in 2013.

Dr. Ashlee Ford Versypt, an Assistant Professor in the School of Chemical Engineering at Oklahoma State University, sent one of her graduate students, Minu Pilvankar, to participate in the BE Program. Dr. Ford Versypt wanted Pilvankar to participate in BE because she felt it was a great “opportunity to network with others in computational science”. Pilvankar not only used the program as a networking experience but also took advantage of the opportunity to present her research in the BE Posterium event. This opportunity turned out to be beneficial to Pilvankar, as she left the conference with the honor of earning the “Best Posterium” award alongside other BE poster presenters. Dr. Sommer Gentry, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy, also sent a student to participate in BE. Her student, Svetla Walsh, is an undergraduate at the U.S. Naval Academy. After participating in the BE Program, Walsh found inspiration to further her education. “[The program] motivated me to want to continue my education and start looking into grad schools that offer operations research and/or applied mathematics masters” Walsh shared.

Several other CSGF alums volunteered as mentors and guides for the BE Program. Dr. Dan Martin, a Group Lead at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, volunteered with the BE Program in both 2015 and 2017. His motivation for volunteering with BE was to offer support to the participants of the program. “I’ve benefited tremendously from the help I’ve received from the CSGF, and want to be able to pay it forward. I also recognize that for others, this path is much harder than it was for me, and want to help them if I can” said Dr. Martin. He served as a mentor for CSE17 BE participant Lukas WinklerPrins, a math teacher in Los Angeles and a Brown University alum. WinklerPrins derived many benefits from meeting Dr. Martin. “[Martin] took interest in my position and interests and gave great advice on navigating the waters of early-20s career development” said WinklerPrins. WinklerPrins also noted that the conversations he had with Dr. Martin changed his career trajectory. “These conversations grounded a career pivot for me, back into the quantitative sciences” said WinklerPrins. Dr. Martin also enjoyed their mentor/protégé interactions and found WinklerPrins to be “impressive, particularly in . . . energy, enthusiasm, and excitement”.

Wendi Sapp and Minu Pilvankar during the SIAM CSE17 poster session.

Dr. Stefan Wild, a Computational Mathematician in the Mathematics & Computer Science Division at Argonne National Lab, also volunteered with BE in 2015 and 2017. At CSE17, Dr. Wild served as a mentor to Wendi Sapp, a graduate student at the University of South Dakota. Sapp was grateful that she built a strong mentor/protégé relationship with Dr. Wild because it was something she was not able to do before participating in BE. “Prior to being paired with a mentor at the BE program, I had never had anyone in my academic life that I felt was a mentor to me. . . I began to think I would never be successful because I did not have this support system” said Sapp. Like WinklerPrins, Sapp’s experience with Dr. Wild and the BE Program also grounded a monumental change in her life.

I had known for quite some time that I was not in the right place, academically. My participation in the BE program served as the catalyst I needed to make a change. This summer I am moving and starting a new program at a new university. I had always regretted not studying mathematics, and now I have an opportunity to do so . . . There really is no telling where I’d be right now, had I not participated in the BE program. But, chances are, I would not have had the courage (and support through mentorship) to make a change.

Dr. Wild’s and Sapp’s strong connection inspired them to continue their mentoring relationship even after the CSE conference. “I continue to email my mentor on a regular basis. Considering that I am switching programs/universities and looking for a job, his input and perspective has been invaluable. I also attribute my success in being the recipient of a prestigious grant to his helping me with the content of my resume” shared Sapp. Dr. Wild was also pleased with the outcome of his mentorship and participation with BE. “The students I have mentored exhibit a tremendous amount of moxie,” said Dr. Wild, “. . . it was fun to watch their progression throughout the meeting and then follow their successes afterward”.

Dr. Julianne Chung receiving the Howes Scholar Award in 2010.

The impressive character of the BE community is a large reason why CSGF alums volunteer with the program, but it is not the sole reason. Many of the CSGF alums volunteer because they support the work the BE Program does to increase diversity within the STEM community. Dr. Julianne Chung, a CSGF alum and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics at Virginia Tech, feels that a diverse scientific community is vital to future scientific success. ”A diverse and collaborative team of researchers ensures a diversity of ideas and perspectives.  To address the critical scientific needs of tomorrow, we must ensure that all people (from all backgrounds, orientations, and walks of life) can be welcome and valued contributors to scientific research and progress” said Dr. Chung. Dr. Martin agrees that a diversity of perspectives is valuable in science, but also feels a moral responsibility to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM. “The more basic reason is rooted in simple fairness. We like to think that science and math are meritocracies — in the end, talent, hard work, and good ideas win out . . . and the idea that this path is closed or unequally accessible to some people goes against everything I believe in” said Dr. Martin.

Although the CSGF Program does its best to support diversity within the scientific community, there is always room for growth. Dr. Eric Chi, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Statistics at North Carolina State University and an alum of the CSGF Program, believes that a diverse scientific community is essential to meet the growing need for high quality scientists. He shared his idea for increasing diversity within the CSGF Program:

Part of the problem with increasing the supply of computational scientists is that students aren’t even aware of the opportunities they can have in this field. . . An important aspect of increasing diversity in the CSGF program is to increase outreach opportunities to younger students so they have the ability to get interested in computation and STEM during college or even before they attend college. The work that Sustainable Horizons Institute does is important, and the BE program is exactly the kind of supervised learning about career paths that’s needed to increase interest in programs like CSGF from a more diverse and broader population.

Dr. Eric Chi giving a talk at the CSGF Program Review in 2011.

SHI is incredibly honored to have the support of the distinguished and reputable scientists associated with the CSGF Program. The support of these bright scientists helps more and more people become aware of the need for change in the community perspective of who belongs in STEM. The CSGF connection with BE brings us closer to a STEM community that fosters the best of best from all walks of life, and that is inclusive of all people.