When looking around a college campus, it's easy to assume half of its doctoral candidates are women. This assumption would be right; women are awarded nearly half of all doctoral degrees annually, according to 2013 statistics by the National Science Foundation (NSF). When looking at full-time professors, however, the number is much lower.
Similar patterns are seen in minorities. This is why UCLA has made a commitment to realizing diversity by creating an environment that's inclusive of everyone. And this year, it inspired a student diversity group.
Scientific fields see some of the starkest contrasts between the makeup of students and professionals in the field. That's what STEM-PLEDGE — short for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Providing Leadership & Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education — hopes to change. The new organization is open to any graduate and postdoctoral students at UCLA who want to help address the barriers that prevent the full participation of groups often underrepresented in the university's STEM graduate programs.
Challenges in diversity
"There's a leaky pipeline, particularly among women, but also among other groups historically underrepresented in science," said Dr. Lynn Gordon, Senior Associate Dean of Academic Diversity at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Improving diversity means addressing the makeup of professionals in order to ensure adequate representation different races, ethnicities, disabilities, religions and sexual orientations, as described in federal affirmative action guidelines. One mission of STEM-PLEDGE is to perfect the culture by reaching out to researchers to inform them on how their diversity teams can provide a more complete scientific view of this endeavor.
STEM retention and career development
Above all, the group wants to help its members improve their careers and promote the ways in which diversity can improve scientific research.
"Collaboration is a growing theme of science," says Dennis Montoya, PhD, STEM-PLEDGE co-chair. "Everyone needs to collaborate to survive, so we want to talk about this collaboration in light of diversity, while also improving the scientific careers of our members."
Dr. Montoya, a graduate of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA who co-chairs the group with Salemiz Sandoval, PhD, helped found the "Scientific Excellence through Diversity" seminar series. This event at UCLA features women and minority professors from around the country who speak about their work and how it has driven their career's progression. It's a great opportunity for learning and networking.
Recently, the diversity group cosponsored a campus event aimed at improving scientific writing, collaboration and team science. The symposium, cosponsored by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, invited well-known speakers to talk about how diversity contributes to research as well as their own personal and professional experiences.
Most events are open to the entire academic community, and there's a lot to learn from their accomplished speakers — even for those who aren't female or don't identify as a minority.
Reaching the next generation
STEM-PLEDGE understands it's not only important to support and retain those currently enrolled in STEM programs, but also to encourage a wide range of people to continue joining these groups.
This is why the group also has such a large outreach component. Members don't just reach out to college students to increase their commitment to scientific careers. They also speak at high schools to interest the next generation of scientists and encourage them to start along these rewarding paths.
By Patricia Chaney