The Office of Postdoctoral Affairs hosted its third annual Postdoc JEDI Champions award ceremony on Sept. 20 as part of the 14th Annual National Postdoc Appreciation Week. (Image credit: Chelcey Adami)

When Bradley Tolar moved from Mississippi to California to be a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford, he didn’t know anyone else in the Pacific Time Zone. Initially, it was a lonely experience, but Tolar found a sense of belonging at the university as well as support from the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association (SURPAS) and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA).

“Stanford marked the first time in my professional life that I was able to integrate my queer identity with my work life,” Tolar said. “Once I reached that level of self-comfort, I didn’t want to let that end, and I didn’t want other people to have to go through those unnecessary feelings of stress and anxiety.”

Tolar, now an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington, was among the inaugural recipients of the Stanford Postdoc JEDI Champion Award, first presented in 2021, which recognizes postdoctoral scholars advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) at Stanford and beyond.

Tolar was honored for his efforts with the SURPAS JEDI Committee; Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (oSTEM); and working with postdocs and graduate students to launch the Someone Like Me mentoring program.

Openly welcoming others and encouraging visibility breaks down barriers in education, which in turn benefits science and traineeship, Tolar said.

Without a sense of belonging, postdocs are “not going to stay or be successful,” Tolar said. “Some of the efforts I made with colleagues made a huge impact on Stanford, and we developed programs that are still going and benefiting people. This award gives a little credit for some of the extra work we do to make life better for Stanford postdocs, future postdocs, and others.”

Recipients of the 2023 Stanford Postdoc JEDI Champions Award pose for a photo following the Sept. 20 award ceremony. In the top row (left to right) are Colwyn “CoCo” Headley, Cellas Hayes, Megan Agajanian, Melanie Hannebelle, Amy R. Nava, Adrian Bacong, and Steven Chavez. In the bottom row (left to right) are Kevin Todd Mintz, Carla Huerta-Lopez, Kahdeidra Monét Martin, Celeste Melamed, Stephanie Balters, and Wendy Wenderski. Not pictured are Leah Guthrie, Anthony Venida, and Lucy Xie. (Image credit: Robin Colomb Sugiura)

Changing the world

OPA hosted its third annual Postdoc JEDI Champions award ceremony on Sept. 20 as part of the 14th Annual National Postdoc Appreciation Week. Since the awards’ inception, 58 postdocs have received this distinction.

OPA created the award in response to postdocs’ feedback, and it is among broader efforts to ensure that JEDI principles and actions are woven into the fabric of the community.

Stanford community members nominate recipients for the award. This year, there were 135 nominations for 66 scholars, with 16 winning the award.

“We’re excited to amplify and elevate important efforts by postdocs that are having a huge impact at Stanford and elsewhere,” said Sofie Kleppner, associate vice provost and associate dean for postdoctoral affairs. “There’s so much of this incredible work going on that is critical to ensuring that Stanford, and our world more broadly, is an equitable, accessible, and diverse place.”

There are nearly 2,500 postdocs at Stanford contributing to the university’s research and education mission.

“They are committed and make a lot of sacrifices to be here,” said Kleppner. “They come with brilliant ideas, a huge range of perspectives, values and experience, and a lot of energy. They’re changing the world.”

Approximately 900 new postdocs arrive at the university throughout the year, creating a “churn of creativity, energy and ideas,” Kleppner said.

Strengthening the postdoc community helps attract postdocs and encourages them to stay at Stanford, which in turn supports broader efforts to diversify the professoriate and the university’s mission of teaching and research.

“We know that postdocs with identities and backgrounds underrepresented in academia often have a very strong sense of advocacy and of giving back to their community,” Kleppner said. “We want to provide any avenue by which we can recognize this work.”

May the force be with you

As a Star Wars fan, the acronym JEDI holds a lot of power for Vinita Bharat, assistant director of science communication and research development training in the Office of Pediatric Research Development at Stanford’s Department of Pediatrics.

So when Bharat received the Postdoc JEDI Champion Award last year, she felt “incredibly recognized and inspired” to continue her JEDI efforts. “This recognition has further driven me to grow, contribute, and collaborate more to uphold JEDI’s core values,” said Bharat, who now co-chairs the JEDI committee for the Stanford research development community.

Bharat was honored for her various outreach initiatives and mentorship roles at and outside of Stanford. She started the online science communication platform “Fuzzy Synapse” in 2017 to make science more inclusive and accessible by using fun visuals and cartoons.

“As a woman of color in STEM, I realize how crucial it is to create a supportive and inclusive environment for everyone, regardless of their identity,” Bharat said.

Postdocs are uniquely positioned to support JEDI values, Bharat said, as they conduct research alongside their mentors while also mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. Further, the postdoc career stage is key in identifying personal research values, which in turn can lead to positive societal impact.

“Having the opportunity for postdocs to engage with diverse and interdisciplinary teams and being well-situated to think about the social impact of work at this stage promotes collaboration, innovation, and progress that can lead to groundbreaking discoveries and solutions at Stanford and beyond,” Bharat said.

Visit the Stanford Postdoc JEDI Champion Award website to learn more about the 2021, 2022, and 2023 honorees, as well as how to nominate someone for the award.