Grad Students at Forefront of Efforts to Create Belonging in Science

October 1, 2021 • by Amanda Figueroa-Nieves

Learn about how UT Austin's College of Natural Science is working to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

A video conference with multiple people

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Graduate Fellows meet with CNS Dean David A. Vanden Bout.

Who gets encouraged to become a scientist or mathematician -- and who is given the tools and support to succeed on the path to becoming one? These are some of the questions graduate students across the College of Natural Sciences are asking and working to address together with faculty, administrators, staff and fellow students across the college.

Over the years, STEM disciplines have often fallen short of representing all the diversity of society and the full talent pool needed to bring needed innovations and discoveries to the world. To foster an inclusive environment in CNS and beyond, several new efforts with strong graduate student leadership have emerged. Here are four worth knowing.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Graduate Fellows

Based in: The CNS Dean's Office, Office of Strategy and Planning

Aim: To recognize outstanding graduate student leaders for their contributions to DEI efforts across the college, the fellowships leveraged the talents and efforts of Ph.D. candidates throughout last summer for important DEI initiatives.

Accomplishments: Three fellows were selected for 2021, and all engaged in conversations about DEI with college leadership and advised faculty. Additionally:

  • STEM education graduate student Tatiane Russo-Tait developed workshops aimed at improving understanding of DEI. Giving people meaningful tools and resources to improve their programs' climate, the workshops will be offered to departments and programs across the college.
  • Lorraine Scott, a human development and family sciences Ph.D. candidate, focuses on determining the identities and experiences of those who do the majority of the work in DEI spaces and whether they get credit or compensation for this work.
  • Efforts to connect and reinforce shared interests in DEI speakers across many CNS graduate education programs were led by physics Ph.D. candidate Suzanne Jacobs. She started a DEI-focused speaker series this summer with the involvement of UT's physics, math and astronomy communities, fostered progress on a college-wide coordinated speaker series and inspired a lunchtime series of meetings to connect college leadership with graduate programs throughout CNS.

Impact: "Any time a college leader gets to sit down and really listen to a student is valuable time spent," said Melissa Taylor, senior assistant dean for strategy and equity initiatives, who supervises the fellows. "These students are very clearly the future leaders of higher education, so it can be very hopeful and awe-inspiring for administrators to be reminded of the brightness of the future of science."

What's next: The fellows will be meeting with college leaders, in part to help them see themselves as future academic leaders and in part to provide new perspectives on diversity, equity and inclusion problems for college leadership.

Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Task Force

Based in: The Department of Chemistry

Aim: To advocate for positive institutional changes within chemistry and create an inclusive, diverse and equitable working and learning environment for present and future members of the department.

Motivation: "Many underrepresented minorities in chemistry come from a lower income background," observed IDEA member Aja Nicely. "Similar to internships, research can have a barrier to entry where wealthier students can afford to work for free and gain the experience that is often required by graduate schools and industry."

Accomplishments: Last semester, IDEA hosted a seminar series focused on how identity intersects with scientific research. The seminars covered the exclusionary aspects of STEM education; methods to assess academic climate and improve the sense of belonging for underrepresented groups; and the concept of communities of practice and how to support underrepresented students through outreach.

Impact: "The seminars were very different from the science-based talks we're used to going to," said IDEA member Jaime Coronado. "It's great that we can talk about these equally important, real-world issues that we wouldn't get as much exposure to if we just had our heads down in research."

What's next: IDEA is currently drafting funding proposals to provide merit-based stipends to undergraduate student researchers within the department. IDEA members hope the stipends will improve access to research opportunities for students who might otherwise be left out.

Mathematicians of Color Alliance of Texas (MOCAT)

Based in: Department of Mathematics

Aim: "Wanting to bring mathematicians of color to our speaker series … representation is one of the biggest motivators for people to go on to grad school and academia," said Luis Torres, a MOCAT organizer.

Accomplishments: MOCAT hosts a year-long speaker series, the "Distinguished Mathematicians of Color Colloquium Series" to highlight and promote the work and achievements of people of color in research mathematics. A newly secured $6,000 Tensor SUMMA grant from the Mathematical Association of America has set the stage for expansion.

What's next: With the grant, MOCAT hopes to invite two speakers per semester to their series, doubling the number of speakers they usually invite. Torres said the organization also plans to use funds from the grant to send undergraduate students to research conferences and offer scholarships for expenses related to applying for graduate programs, like application fees and GRE fees, since the process can be cost-prohibitive.

The Scientists Against Racism in Natural and Engineering Sciences (SARDINES)

Based in: Interdisciplinary Life Sciences (ILS) Graduate Program


  • SARDINES elected two graduate student representatives to the Molecular Biosciences Diversity and Inclusion Committee — Ph.D. candidates Linda Letti Lopez and Dzifa Amengor.
  • SARDINES received a $5,000 grant to develop scientist-themed lesson plans that are meant to facilitate conversations about DEI issues in STEM at the university. The beta version of the toolkit includes three lesson plans and is being tested across two departments, Molecular Biosciences and Integrative Biology.

Impact: "These lesson plans can be implemented as part of labs' regular meeting schedule," said microbiology graduate student Julie Perreau, who co-facilitates the club with Janelle Leggere, a cell and molecular biology graduate student. "We believe that racism exists in power and policies and must be actively addressed and combatted."

What's next: The SARDINES hope to expand the use of their toolkit for scientists throughout the college.

For more about the College of Natural Sciences' efforts to build a more inclusive and equitable Texas Science community, please see our college-wide strategic framework and updates.