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Young Hispanic scientist wearing a lab coat, looking under microscope while using laptop in a laboratory

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling banning race-based affirmative action means that universities will face more difficulties recruiting students of color in academe. As a Latino and former undocumented immigrant who pursued a career in higher education for a decade, it is now more important than ever that I and others from historically excluded backgrounds share our stories about what factors keep us out of these careers and how those obstacles can be surmounted.

There is a lack of diversity in research laboratoriesPh.D. programs and at the faculty level. I first realized this as the only Latino in my Ph.D. class at Yale University, where it took me four years to find a community of students of color. Sadly, this issue isn’t specific to Ivy League universities but occurs nationwide. Hispanics make up 18 percent of the U.S. population yet only 6 percent earn a STEM research doctorate.

Instead of waiting for systemic institutional change to improve diversity in academe, I decided to build my own initiatives. Underrepresented students do not have the same access to the resources and information that they need to become academic and professional scientists. With my close friend, Olivia Goldman, we started a grassroots organization to address this and are now an example of how underrepresented scientists and allies can work together to tackle inequalities in STEM. We called the organization “Científico Latino” to inspire Latinos and other underrepresented students who dream of becoming scientists.

Our mission is to increase the number of underrepresented scientists in higher education in the sciences through open access to mentorship, resources and professional development opportunities. As two ambitious graduate students, we started by compiling resources of vital information to support early career scientist’s professional development. In 2017, we built a website of those resources, including databases of scholarships, summer programs and graduate school preparation programs. Wanting to make a bigger impact on the leaky pipeline for historically marginalized students in STEM, we also launched the Graduate Student Mentorship Initiative, or GSMI, program where we help underrepresented students applying to graduate school in the sciences, including master’s and Ph.D. programs.

We focused on graduate school admissions because it is a major bottleneck for diversity in the sciences. First-generation and low-income students have a huge disadvantage in graduate school applications. Succeeding in the highly competitive process requires nuanced knowledge of the social and cultural norms of academe, access to a network of academic professionals, and information on how to prepare a strong graduate school application, which is generally easier for students who come from high-income families or have family members who have studied or worked in higher education.

In addition, graduate school applications are expensive. A single application can cost $100, and students tend to apply to around six schools. That creates a significant financial burden for a college student or recent graduate. Those factors cumulatively contribute to the lack of representation of underrepresented students in graduate programs and scientific careers.

In building Científico Latino, we sought to tackle those obstacles by offering underrepresented students access to a scientific mentor and a community of other scientists, application fee waivers, educational materials and webinars on applying to graduate school, and interview preparation guidance. By simply providing such needed resources, we help level the academic playing field for historically marginalized students. We also wanted to make sure we did not leave anyone behind. Our selection process considers students from different underrepresented backgrounds, including those who are first generation, low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, and child of immigrants, or from foreign countries, as well as those of various genders and with different types of disabilities.

It has truly been a grassroots effort. Since our program began in 2019, we have worked with more than 500 volunteer mentors across the United States—including graduate students, postdoctoral scientists and faculty members from 100 different universities that guide students on their scientific journey. In that time, 443 students have enrolled in master’s or Ph.D. programs and are pursuing their academic careers. Of them, 21 have earned competitive national graduate school fellowships such as the NSF-GRFP

As many as 65 percent of our students come from low-income backgrounds and are pursuing doctoral studies across all types of STEM fields, like neuroscience and physics, at universities such as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rockefeller and Stanford. I can proudly say that while the U.S. has a long way to go still in strengthening the leaky pipeline and providing equitable access to scientific careers, our work has made an impact on the lives of a good number of future scientists. We have received comments from our students such as the following, written by an Indigenous Latina scientist who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry: “This program is a life saver! It literally changed my life by helping me with the process and now I’m going to be a doctor! THANK YOU!”

Looking ahead, we hope we can work together side by side with universities, nonprofit organizations and education leaders so that students of color and other minorities feel represented, empowered and valued in the sciences. We encourage other scientists and university leaders to establish mentorship programs and recruitment events, to waive application fees, and to dedicate significantly more resources to pre-graduate school advising.

That said, especially now, with the end of affirmative action and with diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) initiatives under attack, we cannot rely on academic institutions alone.

We need to support the professional development of the next generation of scientists. I encourage current scientists to mentor underrepresented students at their university and help them with their graduate school applications. They should pay undergraduate students for their time working in the research laboratory so they can have the financial independence to focus on their research careers while studying full-time. And they should work with their department to establish funding for undergraduate students to attend research and professional development conferences, as well as with university leaders to invite experts to host graduate school preparation workshops so we can invest in our future scientific leaders. We ourselves need to be the difference that we want to see in the future of STEM.

Robert W. Fernandez is a Junior Simons Fellow at Columbia University and co-founder of Científico Latino. He is also a PD Soros Fellow and Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

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