Diversity and inclusion in the undergraduate research lab

In this post, Dr. Hector Palencia discusses strategies for recruiting and retaining underrepresented minority students in the undergraduate research lab, while also creating and maintaining an inclusive culture. 


Recruiting students

Valencia post_UNKValencia - UNK 2

The University of Nebraska at Kearney is part of the University of Nebraska system and the campus specializing in undergraduate education. It is located in a rural area in central Nebraska. Historically it has served the communities located in the west part of Nebraska, some parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and South Dakota. Hispanics are the largest underrepresented minority in the area but we also have several other minorities, Asians being the second largest minority group, comprised of mostly international students. About 40% of the UNK undergraduate students are the first generation in their family to go to the college.  The underrepresented student population varies from college to college, but recruitment strategies are similar. On our campus, the diversity is an opportunity to engage them in research projects. Our university has the undergraduate research fellow program, offering a stipend for students during the semester. They are expected to spend 10 hours per week in a research project. I have found this program very effective for retention of students in my group. The students have also the opportunity to present their research during the undergraduate research day, bringing students from all disciplines.  Our university also has other programs for the summer which have been helpful for growing our undergraduate research. Institutional programs are key to in the development of a strong research program in a college, but support varies. However, there are some alternatives between different departments.  During the spring semester the department of Chemistry has a recruiting program named “the apprentice program”, targeting freshman students. We offer a small stipend for 24 hours of research during the semester. We advertise it in our classrooms, in the hallways, and send them electronically to them. Then our students interview with different faculty members and decide which group they want to join to.

During the spring semester the department of Chemistry has a recruiting program named “the apprentice program”, targeting freshman students.

Valencia post_image 1Sometimes, underrepresented students feel intimidated when thinking about doing research and advertising is not enough. I have found that inviting them directly is the most efficient way to recruit them. I have worked with different underrepresented students in my group, Hispanic, African American, and Asians. Is there a “magic” number in an undergraduate research group? It depends on several factors, in my opinion a group between 4 to 6 students during the regular semester and 2 or 3 during the summer is a number that we can handle considering the time we can spend with each of them and also matching our schedules. Our goal as mentors is to have successful undergraduate researchers from underrepresented minority groups and training them is key in this endeavor. The advice is not limited to the laboratory but also to writing reports, organizing data, and preparing posters. Eventually, some of them are highly motivated and want to pursue a career in science. In my experience I have seen that our enthusiasm as faculty plays a role in the success and interest of our students in science.

Sometimes, underrepresented students feel intimidated when thinking about doing research …I have found that inviting them directly is the most efficient way to recruit them.

Communicating our work

Communicating our work is part of our duties. How do we it? It depends on the audience. As an organic chemist I can talk to my colleges with the same area of expertise with technical details. However, when I talk to other colleges non familiar with my area avoiding jargon proper from organic chemistry helps to communicate my work better. In our department we have seminars for junior and senior students and we present our research to them and faculty along. This dissemination is also effective to advertise yourself with students and make your colleges aware of your research.

Finally, it is our responsibility as scientists and teachers to educate the public and disseminate knowledge. There are different venues through we can accomplish this goal at different levels, one is participating in conferences, meetings, volunteering as a speaker in High Schools, bringing 4th graders and High School students to our campus. Media is also ideal to disseminate our research around the word. Our university also brings in High School minority students for a recruitment event every year. Communicating our work has two purposes, one is to educate people and the other interesting younger generations in science.

Retention of undergraduate researchers and productivity go hand-in-hand with an inclusive and comfortable environment in the laboratory.

Creating an inclusive laboratory environment

Valencia post_image 2Retention of undergraduate researchers and productivity go hand-in-hand with an inclusive and comfortable environment in the laboratory. If your students are happy in your group, they will show more commitment and become more productive. How can we do it? I pair my students in the laboratory, promote discussions between them, and encourage them whether they get the expected results or not. I show them that no matter where they can come from success anybody can be successful if they wanted, every student in my group have leadership in something. I find their good points and use them to make them grow professionally and to stress they can be successful as future professionals.

They ride with me to regional or National meeting, when they happen to be in a reasonable driving distance. This way they feel not only as part of a group but also part of a professional community which give them more confidence to succeed in their professional careers.

~Hector Palencia, PhD. is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. The University of Nebraska at Kearney is part of the University of Nebraska system and the campus specializing in undergraduate education. 

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