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See how our current work and research is bringing new thinking and new solutions to some of today's biggest challenges.

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By Krisy Gashler
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  • Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Landscape Architecture
  • Microbiology

This is the first in a series of stories detailing the actions CALS students, faculty and staff have taken over the past year to make our community a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place for everyone. Here, we highlight some of our student-led efforts – these emerging leaders, often through sheer labors of love, emphasize inclusive excellence and are motivated by a desire to make the path more equitable for those who will follow.

Molecular Biology and Genetics: building confidence for grad school

Irma Fernandez didn’t plan to apply to Cornell. As an undergraduate student at the University of California, San Diego and a relatively recent immigrant from Mexico, Fernandez said she assumed she’d never be accepted. What changed her path was attending a conference and meeting a Cornell graduate student who looked like her and encouraged her to try.

“As an underrepresented minority in science, I think a lot of us don’t know how to be a competitive applicant, or we self-select out and don’t go for it, because we don’t think we’ll get in,” Fernandez said.

“But here was this graduate student, also interested in biochemistry, also from L.A., also Hispanic, and he encouraged me to apply. I don’t think I would have applied without that.”

Now a Ph.D. candidate in the field of molecular biology and genetics (MBG), Fernandez studies an enzyme involved in regulating metabolism in the context of breast cancer. She’s also a founding member of the MBG Diversity Council and one of the student organizers of the Life Sciences Diversity Recruitment Weekend, which held its first conference in June 2021. Patterned after the highly successful annual Diversity Preview Weekend pioneered by students in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in 2017, the life sciences diversity recruitment weekend brought together five fields across three schools to help underrepresented minority students gain the skills and confidence to apply to Cornell.

The 10 student organizers met weekly for three months. They advertised aggressively, especially on Twitter, and ended up with 100 program applicants from around the globe. Sixty participants ultimately were chosen to attend, said Kara Zielinski, a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics and another organizer.

“I think most of the participants were much more prepared and competitive than they realized,” Zielinski said. “So many of them just couldn’t even picture what a competitive application looked like. In terms of enthusiasm, passion, research experience – all of those boxes were checked. They just needed somebody to encourage them to try.”

The recruitment weekend focused on helping prospective students understand the ins and outs of applying for graduate school. They explained how the application process works, organized mock interviews with real faculty members, workshopped resumes and personal statements, and described how to apply for funding and fellowships, including application fee waivers.

“Explaining how funding works was a big part of our event,” said Bert Correa, weekend co-organizer and a Ph.D. candidate in microbiology. “Not having the money to pay student fees, application fees – and not realizing that you can apply for fee waivers – that’s a huge barrier that systematically excludes people from underrepresented backgrounds in academia.”

Oriana Teran Pumar, a Ph.D. student in biochemistry, founding member of the MBG Diversity Council and weekend co-organizer, said pandemic-related restrictions actually enabled the students to make this conference happen. After talking about organizing a conference like this for several years, Teran and Fernandez realized a fully virtual conference would be much less expensive to pull off. It also enabled them to welcome international students.

“I moved to the U.S. as a teenager, but I was considered an international student during my undergrad, so I was very passionate about letting them in,” Teran said. They ultimately welcomed students from several African countries, China and Hong Kong. The organizers developed one workshop specifically for international students, who have a different application process than U.S. students.

The grassroots strength and institutional support for organizations and events like the MBG Diversity Council and the Life Sciences Diversity Recruitment Weekend is evident to student applicants, and it matters to them, Zielinski said.

“I felt that as a new student, and we hear that from a lot of students, that this is why they come to Cornell: because this is a place that’s active and a place that cares about these issues,” Zielinski said.

Landscape Architecture: unpacking systemic inequalities
LABash conference organizers standing and sitting on stairs inside a building
LABash Conference Organizers. Photo provided

In early spring 2020, Cornell’s landscape architecture students were set to host the 50th anniversary session of LABash – a yearly, student-led conference for landscape architects and students throughout North America hosted by a different university each year. It was going to be the first time the conference was hosted at Cornell, or anywhere in New York state. Then COVID-19 hit, campuses across the country shut down, and the conference was canceled.

As a new group of students began scrambling to re-envision the conference for 2021, they grappled with the issues of inequity, injustice and violence precipitated by George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing wave of Black Lives Matter protests worldwide.

The student organizers decided to make diversity, equity and inclusion central to their 2021 conference, settling on the theme of “Compacted Grounds.” The theme evokes both the problem in landscape architecture of physically compacted soils, and it serves as a metaphor for the need to unpack systemic inequalities and enable minority voices to not just exist, but flourish, said Dom Malacaman ’22, co-director of LABash 2021.

“Having attended other conferences and lecture series in various cities, I started to feel like it was always the same set of voices,” Malacaman said.

“But the voices that are most compelling and helpful for me are those focused on diversity, inclusion and design justice,” Malacaman said.

The students wanted to learn more about how landscape architects can work with underrepresented communities to, for example, adapt to climate change, address homelessness and acknowledge indigeneity. The 44 speakers they chose included 29 women, 18 of them women of color. The virtual conference, they discovered, enabled them to welcome more diverse speakers and attendees: Because no one had to travel for the conference, speakers who were busier and further away could participate, and the attendance fee was cut to one-third its normal cost.

“This was definitely the most accessible and, thus, the most diverse conference that we've ever had,” said Nicole Nomura, a dual master’s student in landscape architecture and regional planning, and executive director of LABash 2021.

Recognizing that the cost to attend conferences like this – which are critical for networking and rising in the profession – is a structural barrier for lower-income students, they initiated a LABash seed fund to help underwrite costs for future, in-person years.

Jake Geitner ’22, the other co-director for LABash 2021, said landscape architects will be critical in designing spaces that can adapt to and help mitigate the effects of climate change. Because low-income and minority communities are expected to face the harshest effects of climate change, addressing climate justice requires also addressing social justice, Geitner said.

“I think our field tends to jump over that step,” he said.

“Part of our purpose was to shake the tree a little bit and let the industry know, this is the incoming generation of landscape architects, and this is the direction we’re going. We’d be happy to have you along, too, but this is the way we’re going, no matter what,” Geitner said.

Earth and Atmospheric Sciences: building inclusivity and community

Traditionally, fieldwork policies in earth and atmospheric sciences cover basic safety procedures like wearing sturdy boots, using eye protection and carrying a first-aid kit.

But they normally don’t cover issues like how to do fieldwork in a country that’s hostile to LGBTQ identities, how to account for situations or times of the day that may make female researchers more vulnerable to sexual assault, and how to protect Black scientists, who are often questioned and harassed by strangers in the field more than their white counterparts.

Thanks to the advocacy of a student-led effort and the research of two graduate students in ecology and evolutionary biology, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences leaders are finalizing a new fieldwork guide this fall.

“We want to look beyond the standard and frequently outdated field safety guides and consider what structural changes are needed to make sure researchers of every identity feel safe and supported while doing fieldwork,” said Elizabeth Eiden, a Ph.D. student in the field of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS).

Eiden is a participant in the grassroots group Inclusion, Diversity and Equity in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (IDEEAS), which works to build inclusivity and community in the department. IDEEAS hosts social events, organizes workshops on topics like conflict resolution and uncovering unconscious bias, and advocates for structural changes that support diversity and inclusion.

“There’s a lot of work to try to increase diversity in academia, but if you don’t have inclusivity, I feel that you’ve failed before you’ve even started,” said Douglas Hamilton, a research associate in EAS who uses the pronoun they. As a scientist who is gay, neurodiverse and a first-generation college student, Hamilton understands some of the challenges students with those identities may face, and they wanted to help make EAS more diverse and supportive.

Hamilton was a postdoc in EAS when they, graduate students Paula Burgi and Patricia MacQueen, and research associate Grace Barcheck created IDEEAS in summer 2019. Barcheck said her motivation in helping to form the group was to give younger people the opportunities, connections and sense of belonging in a community of scientists that she didn’t have as an undergraduate.

“My perspective was that there was not a lot of effort to make spaces inclusive when I was a young, female student in geosciences,” Barcheck said. “I want to give people the things I didn’t have.”

The growth in interest in DEI issues, especially over the past few years, has had a cascading, beneficial effect: As more people discuss their diverse experiences and needs, it creates space for other individuals and groups to come forward and create yet more understanding and inclusivity, Hamilton said.

“Being visible as a gay researcher, as a neurodiverse researcher – letting other undergraduates know that we do exist and they’re not alone – is important to me. I had no role models as a student, and I wish I had,” they said. “I’m encouraged that people are having more conversations about DEI issues. That motivates me to do more myself to make the path for future scientists more equitable and inclusive.

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