Organization for Cultural Diversity in Science

There have been many earnest efforts by academic organizations to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in higher-level education. Yet according to the latest edition of the National Science Foundation’s Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineeringreport, the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – more widely known as STEM – remain dominated by white males.

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Group photo from 2018 Spring Science and Engineering Showcase for community college students

Despite upwards of 37% of students from all backgrounds and ethnicities declaring a STEM major as freshmen in college, only 10% of academic and industrial Ph.D. positions are held by underrepresented minorities. This disproportionate loss of ethnic and cultural diversity in STEM fields is also present at both the undergraduate and graduate student level. At UCLA, this is compounded by the fact that few groups are dedicated to increasing inclusivity and diversity in STEM relative to other areas of study. In 2006, a group of students and faculty from within the sciences at UCLA took action to change things for the better.

UCLA’s Organization for Cultural Diversity (OCDS) was first established more than 10 years ago as a group within the Chemistry & Biochemistry department. But it soon became apparent that there was need for such a support system in other areas of scientific study, too. The group has since expanded its efforts to provide resources and camaraderie to students in all physical and life sciences at UCLA. OCDS is led by graduate students who are in turn advised by a long-time faculty mentor, professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Miguel García-Garibay, who is also dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences.

“At heart, our mission is to promote greater accessibility to STEM degrees, as well as a general interest in and appreciation for the sciences, to individuals of all backgrounds,” said Janice Lin, a former OCDS co-president.

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Robotics engineering lab tour 2018 spring science and engineering show case

Both students who identify as an underrepresented minority as well as those who are allies work together to plug the leaky pipeline through outreach to prospective college and graduate students, the academic and scientific community, and the public at large. The efforts initiated by OCDS run the gamut from one-on-one support to full-day affairs for scores of off-campus students.

For the group’s quarterly lecture series, student members nominate, organize, and host distinguished speakers from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds across the sciences. The guest speakers present a research seminar and host a diversity roundtable discussion, providing students with opportunities for mentorship and networking in academia and industry. Most recently,OCDSand the UCLA Department of Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences co-hosted Jesus Araujo, MD, Ph.D., for the winter quarter seminar. ProfessorAraujo is a UCLA physician-scientist who specializes in cardiovascular effects of air pollution and holds joint appointments in the department of Medicine, Environmental Public Health and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. This marks the first OCDS invited speaker that was not hosted through chemistry and biochemistry, indicating progress on expanding the diversity of disciplines that OCDS represents.

OCDS also hosts professional development events for graduate students. This includes workshops on contract negotiations and future job applications. These resources help ensure that OCDS members and supporters secure leadership roles as the next generation of academic faculty and business leaders who can continue to push for inclusivity in STEM.

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Former co-president Kevin Cannon givers opening remarks at the 2018 Fall Science and Engineering Showcase

Since 2013, OCDS has invited community college students to UCLA, hosting over 1,000 students across 34 events. In its early years, the group held small events for individual community colleges every two months, and in 2016 a new model was adopted to offer a biannual Science and Engineering Showcase at a larger scale.

In the spring, students interested in pursuing STEM degrees from area community colleges are invited to come to UCLA for a day comprised of a poster session, STEM faculty talks, research lab tours, STEM career workshops, and one-on-one conversations with current graduate students.

“The focus of this event is to educate our community college peers on how to find an undergraduate research position, what it is like to apply for and attend graduate school, and provide them with information on what careers can come from obtaining a bachelor’s or advanced degree in STEM,” said Ethan Rosser, a 4th-year Ph.D. student and co-outreach coordinatorfor OCDS.

The annual fall OCDS event is targeted to current UCLA students and recent transfer students who are interested in pursuing STEM degrees.

Following the four most recent OCDS showcases in 2017 and 2018, 88% of surveyed students found that the event increased their desire to pursue undergraduate research. Many who had not thought such a goal was feasible for them expressed a newfound desire to pursue undergraduate and graduate STEM degrees.

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OCDS co-outreach coordinator, David Boyer, shows students how protein crystals are grown in the lab in the DOE X-ray Facility

But let the students tell you themselves. “[The event made me] much more likely to pursue graduate school,” one commenter offered. “[The outreach] pushed me to go for a mechanical engineering degree,” said another, while a third student said, “There is hope for everything, even the hard things.”

“Knowing that these outreach efforts have had such tangible impacts upon the lives of young students not only serves as validation for what OCDS is doing, but also motivates us to expand our reach,” Rosser said.

Recent chemistry doctoral alumna Emma Pelegri-O’Day, who joined OCDS as a first-year graduate student and later became co-president, recalled her time with the group. “I volunteered and organized, made great friends, and found an important sense of purpose in giving back to the scientific community,” she said.

In some cases, students may be hesitant to participate in diversity organizations because they are not from underrepresented groups. OCDS emphasizes inclusivity and allyship; as such, the group consists of members from a wide range of backgrounds.

“At first I was unsure of how I would fit in with a group like OCDS because I’m not a member of an underrepresented group myself, but after going to a few meetings and seeing how welcoming they are to people of all backgrounds, I felt right at home and I realized that allyship is an important part of the community as well,” said former OCDS co-president Kevin Cannon. “Unless allies from overrepresented groups actively join in the fight, the lack of diversity in STEM will persist.”

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Professor Hosea Nelson (Chemistry and Biochemistry) tells his research with UCLA undergraduates. 2018 Fall Science and Engineering Showcase

OCDS is committed to outreach while also serving as a bedrock for engaging UCLA students from departments across all science and engineering disciplines. To execute this vision, OCDS is pushing to expand its membership and audience base by recruiting graduate students from disciplines outside of the Chemistry & Biochemistry department and the Division of Physical Sciences. The group has teamed up with other student groups in the past, including the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and the graduate committee of the Society for Women Engineers (GradSWE).

Continuing in this spirit, the group joined forces with another like-minded group, the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science (CDLS), to host their bi-annual science outreach event last fall. CDLS is an outreach organization housed within the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability with a focus on “K through grey” outreach to all ages. On October 8th2018, OCDSand CDLS co-hosted a successful 3rdannual Fall Science and Engineering Showcase for UCLA undergraduates.

One attendee at the event submitted a survey that read, “While I have always planned on pursuing a degree in the field of chemistry, seeing the success stories told by both professors and students regarding their experiences during their undergraduate and graduate school years further motivated me to try be just as successful.”

“Collaborations between organizations with shared values elevates impact because we can decide to collectively use our voices to affect change and reach more people. It also supports members and stakeholders learning and benefiting from the mission, resources, and networks of both organizations,” said Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences Professor Aradhna Tripati, who serves as director of CDLS.

With this partnership and others, OCDS hopes to strengthen its ties throughout the UCLA campus and cultivate an environment where unique outreach events with broad appeal can be held among the scientific community at UCLA.

The long-term goal of OCDS is to pursue a financial endowment that would continually fund these efforts and allow for expansion. These expansion goals include the foundation of an annual transfer student scholarship and initiatives to set up programs to better support community college students long-term. OCDS is currently funded through the office of the Dean of Physical Sciences.

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OCDS group photo, Spring 2018.

“One of the most special characteristics of OCDS is that it is an all-inclusive group with a core mission of promoting diversity. The investment made in OCDS by the Division of Physical Sciences is one of the most meaningful and impactful. It allows students to develop relationships and connections that will serve their future careers, but, more importantly, their community,“ said García-Garibay. “An endowment would allow OCDS to further grow and remain sustainable, ensuring their efforts to increase diversity will continue indefinitely.”

“Our team at OCDS is committed to making difference in our community and higher education,” saidDavid Gonzalez, former co-president of OCDS and doctoral candidate in Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences. “But what is most rewarding is seeing younger students light up with interest, and most importantly, hope.”


Currently, OCDS is expanding its seminar series and is accepting applications from student groups who would like to invite and host a seminar speaker in their department as part of the OCDS diversity seminar series. This initiative aims to expand the presence of OCDS on campus and offer additional opportunities to network with graduate students across STEM disciplines.

 

For those interested in hosting a seminar speaker or participating in the upcoming outreach event, please contact ocds.ucla@gmail.com for more information.


By David Boyer, Kevin Cannon, David Gonzalez, Janice Lin and Ethan Rosser