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STEM graduate school applicants from underrepresented backgrounds face greater hurdles

"How can we make admissions to graduate school more equitable?" is a question frequently floated by university administrators and well-intentioned academics. However, there is often a lack of tangible action to address the issue. Over the course of two years, a team at Científico Latino carried out a study supporting over 400 graduate school applicants from underrepresented backgrounds in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology (STEM). The piece, "Insights and Strategies for Improving Equity in Graduate School Admissions" comes out today in Cell. Científico Latino is a fully trainee-run organization focused on improving access to STEM graduate programs for all.

A community of mutual support develops

This story begins in 2012 when Robert Fernandez, a postdoctoral scientist at Columbia University, and Olivia Goldman, a PhD student at Rockefeller University, crossed paths as college students during a summer research program at Princeton University. At the time, little did they know that their shared enthusiasm for science and commitment to equity in STEM would eventually give rise to Científico Latino, an organization that has assisted hundreds of students in gaining entry into PhD programs across the nation. The origins of this organization can be traced back to Fernandez's personal experiences while he was a PhD student at Yale. "In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I felt a responsibility to support my community," reflects Fernandez. "As one of only two Latinos in my Yale PhD department, I experienced periods of isolation." Fueled by his passion to foster diversity in STEM, Fernandez joined forces with Goldman. Científico Latino commenced with modest origins – Goldman and Fernandez initially crafted an online database of college and PhD fellowships, aiming to make funding for PhD programs accessible to all. "Olivia coined the term 'Científico Latino,'" Fernandez notes, "to convey that we were constructing a platform for Latinos and other underrepresented groups to excel in science."

For two years, Fernandez and Goldman managed the online database, and Daisy Duan, a PhD student at Yale University, joined their efforts. "The journey wasn't always smooth," recalls Fernandez. "As PhD students juggling many responsibilities, towards the end of my PhD, I even contemplated putting Científico Latino on hold." Fortunately, Fernandez, Goldman, and Duan’s dedication ignited a grassroots passion in others who volunteered to support the database. Consequently, Científico Latino swiftly evolved from a simple fellowship resource into a comprehensive website publishing blogs, samples of fellowship applications, details about PhD preview weekends, and more. "It transformed into a community of mutual support," Goldman reminisces. "As the program expanded, and more scholars and mentors joined, a vibrant community emerged."

A mentorship initiative for over 400 graduate school applicants

The burgeoning organization eventually launched the Graduate School Mentoring Initiative (GSMI), pairing graduate school applicants with mentors who were current PhD students, postdocs, or faculty. This program which is still running, has triumphed, involving over 400 students and 500 mentors since its inception in 2019. Goldman explains the program's core concept, "Current PhD students and aspiring applicants share a similar phase in life, as they are just a few years apart. This similarity positions current PhD students as ideal mentors to guide younger peers through the complex PhD admission process."

The GSMI initiative has yielded practical benefits for its scholars. "Graduate school applications often appear enigmatic; our objective is to demystify the process," Melissa Cadena, GSMI program director and joint PhD student at Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology, emphasizes. Goldman concurs, underscoring the program's role in leveling the field. "Our program fosters equity. For instance, many PhD applicants have never seen a successful graduate school personal statement. Offering examples of effective personal statements is extremely helpful to our applicants." Another tangible advantage is GSMI's success in obtaining fee waivers for PhD applications. Fernandez highlights, "Numerous schools impose admission fees exceeding $100. For applicants targeting multiple institutions, this can incur substantial costs, particularly for international students and students from low-income backgrounds." In response, Fernandez, Goldman, Cadena, and others proactively liaised with university officials, securing fee waivers for hundreds of scholars.

Graphic of elements of the hidden curriculum, tools used by CL-GSMI and the potential impact.
The impact of the CL-GSMI program. An illustration showing features of the hidden curriculum of graduate school application in the sciences, the tools that the Científico Latino GSMI program uses to intervene to promote equity in graduate school admissions, and the possible long-term impact of their mentorship program.

Graduate programs can do better for applicants: transparency and support

Científico Latino's mission extends further to advance equity in STEM at all career stages. "We are actively crafting new programs, including assisting underrepresented PhD students in securing positions in consulting, biotech, and academia," Fernandez details. "Our aim is to facilitate the enduring career growth of GSMI scholars." Another crucial focus is extending support to undocumented and international students, who often have fewer resources but more obstacles in grappling with the complexities of the American PhD admissions system. Cadena underscores the challenges faced by international students, from TOEFL requirements to translating college transcripts, both incurring additional costs and complexities for these applicants. Currently, the GSMI team has consistently supported prospective students worldwide.

The path to enhancing diversity and equity in STEM remains multifaceted, and the Científico Latino team offers several concrete strategies to address this complex issue. Leonor García-Bayona, a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Chicago, underscores the obscure and confusing nature of many PhD program websites, especially for international students. "Students need transparency to choose suitable schools," she emphasizes. "Schools can provide explicit information about stipends, living costs, and faculty who are recruiting students each year to better empower students in their decisions." Fernandez concurs and extends the proposal, suggesting schools disclose annual student acceptance figures and retention rates, especially for underrepresented individuals. While the journey to equalizing opportunities for all candidates entering the PhD admission cycle remains ongoing, one of Goldman’s concluding statements resonates: "Education is universally valued, but not everyone can afford to fulfill their educational aspirations." With organizations like Científico Latino emerging, optimism arises that similar student-led endeavors will significantly advance equity in PhD admissions, leveling the playing field for the coming generation of young scientists.

Suggestions for making grad school admissions more equitable and accessible on the individual professor/PI level, department level, institution level.
Actionable items for multi-level increasing of graduate school admissions equity and accessibility

This is a press release was commissioned by Científico Latino and written by a member of the Científico Latino team to summarize the findings and significance of the Perspective piece about the Graduate Student Mentorship Initiative (GSMI).



Ben Wang, PhD (He/Him/His) @BenjaminXWang1

Ben is currently a Digital Coordinator at Científico Latino and a second-year postdoc in the Microbiology department at Stanford University, where he works in the laboratory of Dr. Denise Monack on the pathogenesis of human-adapted Salmonella. He received his BS from the California Institute of Technology in 2015 and his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2021. As Ben was raised in a first-generation immigrant household, he has witnessed the challenges that minority groups can face in education and beyond. In turn, Ben is passionate about increasing access to science and has participated in multiple STEM-related outreach programs, including the SIMR (Summer Institute of Medical Research) program at Stanford, which pairs underrepresented high school students with host Stanford labs for summer internships. As he continues to embark upon an academic career, Ben looks forward to mentoring future students from underrepresented backgrounds and being a strong advocate for increased representation and equality in science and higher education.


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