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Stanford summer program brings more diversity to the earth sciences

The Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering (SURGE) program brings students from smaller liberal arts colleges, minority-serving institutions or underserved backgrounds to Stanford for a summer of earth science research and graduate school preparation.

L.A. Cicero SURGE students

Ferdinand Harerimana, Ayanna Jones, Mariela Garcia Arredondo and Sederra Ross relax on the lawn between classes in Stanford's Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering (SURGE) program.

Jerry Harris, a professor of geophysics at Stanford, saw a need for the Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering (SURGE) program decades ago.

Back in 1980, Harris graduated with a doctorate in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, where he had always been conscious that he was the only African-American in his classes. Harris then entered the petroleum industry workforce as a research specialist, working in various parts of the world doing research on seismic imaging.

"It was primarily a white male business," Harris said. "There weren't many minorities, African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, but there also weren't very many women either."

Now, three decades later, Harris says that the industry has become more ethnically diverse. But academia, especially in the earth sciences – a field with a smaller pool of interested students than other sciences – is struggling to keep up.

"I decided to take some action to try to change the School of Earth Sciences (SES) to help prepare and get more underrepresented minorities into graduate schools in the earth sciences," Harris said.

Harris founded SURGE, which now, in its fourth year, has hosted 60 scholars. Ninety-three percent of its graduates have gone on to graduate school or careers in the earth sciences.

The best and the brightest

"Success to us is that the students we bring through SURGE go to graduate school somewhere in the country," Harris said. Surge is funded by a seed gift from Chevron and sustained by contributions from BP and Shell, as well as Stanford's provost and vice provost for graduate education.

Each summer, a group of diverse students from universities and colleges across the country – and sometimes the world – comes to Stanford's campus for eight weeks of intense research and graduate school preparation. The program takes scholars from any area of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as long as they express an interest in going on to graduate school in the earth sciences.

Paired with faculty mentors from a number of departments including Environmental Earth System Science, Energy Resource Engineering, Geological and Environmental Sciences and Geophysics, the students perform graduate-level research and work to prepare a final oral and poster presentation.

This summer, the projects range from identifying discrepancies in simulations of building movement during earthquakes to studying what concentrations of microbes lead to the formation of chromium-6, a naturally occurring carcinogen in serpentine soils.

Students also attend twice-weekly Graduate Record Examination preparation classes, career and graduate-student panels, faculty seminars and field trips exploring the biology, geology and environment of Northern California.

"There's a lot happening in addition to research so that the scholars develop a comprehensive understanding of what comprises graduate school and a career in earth sciences - and so they can see that they're a fit for that path," said Tenea Nelson, the assistant dean in the School of Earth Sciences Office of Multicultural Affairs, and the coordinator for SURGE. 

With students who come from smaller liberal arts colleges, minority-serving institutions or underserved backgrounds, Nelson said, it's great to be able to reach scholars with academic potential who might otherwise self-select out of applying to Stanford or peer institutions, providing them the confidence to go further in their studies.

More confidence, more options

Scholars from this year's program said that SURGE has opened their eyes to the breadth of research in the earth sciences and given them more determination to pursue their own interests.

One of the scholars, Shersingh J. Tumber-Davila, was born and reared in Puerto Rico. Now a rising senior majoring in environmental conservation and sustainability at the University of New Hampshire, and a Udall Scholar, Tumber-Davila said he is working to become a professor because it's a career that combines his loves of learning, teaching and research.

"SURGE is important in the possibilities and the experience that it gives students that come from a diverse background – it's just crucial," Tumber-Davila said. "There's so many little things that you have to learn about the graduate school application process, and it seems like if you don't go to a program like this or don't have a mentor then you wouldn't know a lot of these things." 

Ferdinand Harerimana – originally from Rwanda and now a rising senior in physics and math at Wofford College in South Carolina – had never thought much about climate change before attending the faculty seminars with SURGE.   

 "In the future, whenever I work on something, my question will be 'How is this going to affect people or species or plants around here?' " said Harerimana, a recipient of the elite Rwanda Presidential Scholarship.

After this summer, Harerimana said, he feels much more prepared to apply to graduate school in civil engineering and hydrology – studies he hopes will prepare him to collaborate on solutions to some of Rwanda's issues with flooding and landslides.

Entering her junior year in biogeochemistry at Cornell University, Mariela Garcia said SURGE demystified the graduate school process. In her lab and through SURGE networking, she has met people who came into the earth sciences from a variety of backgrounds, which encouraged her to be more flexible about exploring and going deeper into her interests.

"It shows you that there are people that really care that you get into graduate school and want you to get there," Garcia said. "I feel like it's a huge hand that reaches down to where we all are in undergrad trying to figure out our way and pulls us up a little more to see what it is that we're doing before it's too late."

'Diversity attracts diversity'

Starting in September, there will be two SURGE alumni at Stanford – one in Geophysics and one in Geological and Environmental Sciences.

Other SURGE alumni have stayed in touch with each other and their faculty mentors. Nelson and Harris both look forward to seeing alumni at Stanford as post-docs, faculty members or research collaborators.

"Diversity is an important part of the reason why Stanford is so successful at what it does because we bring together some of the smartest students and staff and faculty from around the world," Harris said. "And it's important to have that diversity in all dimensions because diversity fosters creativity, innovation, and leads to better solutions, and diversity attracts diversity."

Shara Tonn is an intern with the Stanford News Service.