Stanford hosts first conference for new California Alliance

Robin Garrell, vice provost and professor of chemistry  and  biochemistry at UCLA, talks with  Gabriela Bernal, Stanford Graduate student of material science and engineering, and Peter Sorel right, UC Berkeley graduate student in chemical engineering during informational discuss session at the California Alliance Retreat.   (Photo credit:  Steve Castillo)
Robin Garrell, vice provost and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA, talks with Gabriela Bernal, Stanford graduate student in material science and engineering, and Peter Sorel, a UC Berkeley graduate student in chemical engineering, during informational discuss session at the California Alliance Retreat. (Photo credit: Steve Castillo)

At the inaugural conference of the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate last weekend, doctoral students from four of the state’s top research institutions networked and shared ideas about how to successfully chart a path to an academic career.

The alliance, announced in February, includes four leading West Coast universities – Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA and the California Institute of Technology.  With this intellectual firepower, the group was formed to help knock down age-old barriers that have boxed in many people. The effort is funded by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Together, these institutions are targeting a serious problem in higher education – the lack of underrepresented minority PhD students in the mathematical, physical and computer sciences and in engineering.

Among the California Alliance schools in 2011, the year for which the most current data exist, 845 new PhD students in the targeted STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields began their doctoral programs – only 81 of them were from underrepresented minority groups. Of the 753 doctoral degrees awarded in these fields, only 59 of them were to underrepresented minority students. And only 51 of the 1,189 faculty members employed on all four campuses in the targeted fields were from underrepresented minorities.

At the April 4-5 retreat, hundreds of students, faculty members, postdocs and staff from the four institutions attended panels, workshops and small group discussions that addressed ways to build bridges over those walls.

The sessions included a keynote address by California State Assembly Speaker JOHN A. PÉREZ on how minority students can advance to postdoctoral and faculty positions at top-tier research universities.

Participating schools at Stanford include Earth Sciences, Engineering and Humanities & Sciences.

“Absolutely invaluable” was how LILIANA DE LA PAZ, a conference attendee and doctoral student in chemical engineering at Stanford, described the retreat.

“The active mentorship theme was critical to the success of the conference,” she said. “To identify role models and be able to follow through will be instrumental to my professional development. It was extremely inspiring to meet fellow peers as well as faculty and research scientists.”

De La Paz added, “I’m excited to create change for the future.”

What is Stanford doing to advance the cause? The School of Earth Sciences, for example, is creating faculty mentoring connections for postdocs and graduate students, according to TENEA NELSON, assistant dean for multicultural affairs in the School of Earth Sciences.

Faculty, she added, plan to host students and postdocs in their labs for weeklong research visits and will strive to develop career connections for them both in and out of the alliance for the foreseeable future. “The California Alliance will exponentially expand the network of opportunities for postdocs and grad students,” said Nelson.

Those smaller discussions – in workshops, labs and offices – were extraordinarily successful at the Stanford event, said GABRIELA BAYLON.

“I really enjoyed attending the faculty panels,” said Baylon, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering and president of the Stanford Latino Engineering Graduate Organization for Students. “But my favorite event was the smaller discussions where students truly had a chance to express their concerns about being a professor.” 

NOÉ-PABLO LOZANO, associate dean of student affairs and director of diversity programs in Stanford’s School of Engineering, said the conference’s biggest benefit was the high-caliber minority faculty involved. “These are premier leaders in the STEM fields,” he said, “who happen to be focused on original discovery.”

Lozano said that such conferences are “slowly dispelling the myth that these quality students do not exist. Their presence defies all the odds and moves them from being a statistical anomaly to one of projecting the future of science and engineering.”