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Perspectives on grad-student diversity

COURTESY OF PRINCETON ALUMNI WEEKLY
PUBLISHED IN THE DECEMBER 14, 2011 ISSUELiz Johnson GS

Liz Johnson is a fourth-year graduate student in molecular biology. She is a former president of the Black Graduate Caucus and is vice president of the Wesley L. Harris Scientific Society, a group that focuses on supporting the development of minority scientists. 

How attractive is Princeton to graduate students of color, compared to its peers?

I feel that in terms of the Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton is becoming increasingly attractive to graduate students of color. Princeton is becoming more visible to students of color through the efforts of Dr. Alison Gammie’s office (Diversity Programs and Graduate Recruiting for molecular biology and the genomics institute). I believe the more students of color that come through Princeton, the more likely the students are to spread the word that Princeton is an accessible place that provides a stimulating intellectual environment with a genuine focus in developing young scientists. Students who participate in the summer program and graduate students currently in the program are able to be ambassadors for the program, and competitive prospective students seem to really trust the perspective of students who they believe to have shared experiences. For example, while recruiting at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), I could see the look of relief in a student’s face when they could candidly ask me, “Is Princeton really a place that would be supportive for students of color?” and I can tell them from experience that Princeton does provide an excellent educational environment for those that are passionate about molecular biology. They tend to believe you – we have had recruits who were applying to every top-tier molecular biology program except Princeton, and convinced them to add Princeton to the list after face-to-face contact. 

How do you view the University’s efforts to attract and support a diverse group of grad students

Although I have a lot of contact with graduate students of color from other departments from serving and leading the Black Graduate Caucus board for my first three years at Princeton, I only have a secondary opinion of the support of graduate students of color across different departments. However, I can say that the commitment and effectiveness of recruiting/support networks is not equal across the graduate school. I definitely have seen struggles and triumphs of my colleagues in different departments in creating environments conducive to diversity at the graduate school.  

Our department is truly doing its best in trying to attract and support a diverse group of graduate students. I think it is important to create multiple support networks, and this is apparent now. There is a great deal of support from the faculty, which I believe to be the nature of graduate sciences in our department in general.  

Currently there are enough graduate students of color in the department that the younger graduate students have access to advice on how to navigate the day-to-day issues of being a graduate student of color.  

There are societies on campus for support of graduate student life, such as the Wesley L. Harris Scientific Society and the Black Graduate Caucus, that have goals to support both the academic and emotional aspects of completing a Ph.D. in the sciences. The department also has supported the gathering of black students in our department in an informal setting (my apartment complex), so that all years of study can give advice to each other and discuss potential issues faced specifically by being a student of color.  

Dr. Gammie, my thesis adviser, and the members of my thesis committee are some of the main reasons why I can recommend Princeton to prospective students of color. Their support and dedication to educating students from day one until graduation is key in creating a scientific environment comprised of diverse backgrounds. I can tell a student that once they come to Princeton, they won’t be forgotten as they go through challenging times.  

How did you decide to come to Princeton, and what has your experience been like since your arrival?    

My decision to come to Princeton was highly influenced by a visit that Princeton professors made to Spelman College, my undergraduate institution, where I happened to be giving an oral presentation on my senior thesis project. Professor David Botstein, Dr. Gammie, and science librarian Steve Adams made an excellent case for coming to Princeton. What really spoke to me was that through their words and actions, I knew that the Department of Molecular Biology was committed to training young scientists to become future leaders in their fields. After narrowing down schools, it was the positive feeling I got from the Princeton faculty through subsequent lunches, visiting weekends, and emails that convinced me to attend Princeton over Vanderbilt or Harvard, despite the lack of students of color in the department as compared to other institutions.   

When I came to Princeton I was immediately able to develop support networks. Dr. Gammie has served as a mentor to many minority students in the department, and her dedication to teaching and scientific rigor truly has helped me develop in my graduate studies. Faculty members have been wonderful with their time and advice on both science and career development. Additionally, through the support of the Office of Diversity led by Dean Karen Jackson-Weaver ’94, I have been able to serve on the board and lead the University’s Black Graduate Caucus (BGC). Through the support of the engineering school and Professor William A. Massey ’77, I also have had the privilege to serve on the Wesley L. Harris Scientific Society (WLHSS) board – a group that focuses on supporting the development of minority scientists.  

The BGC and WLHSS, and the support these groups get from the University, are a great example of how creating networks can really support the development of a rich and diverse intellectual environment. For WLHSS, we have monthly meetings to discuss the research project of one of our members. Periodically, the interactions at these meetings have developed into highly productive collaborations. Moreover, the BGC and WLHSS provide a safe space to talk about the challenges of being a minority scientist in an environment like Princeton, where – when we entered the department – there were few (virtually none) students and faculty members of color.  

The number of African-American applicants to the grad school was down this year from the past two years, and the number of offers was as low as any of the past five years, according to graduate-school statistics. The yield – 73 percent – was the highest of any of the past five years, however. How do you look at these numbers? 

That is interesting. There are definite disparities in recruiting across departments. I am most familiar with how these statistics have affected students of color in the sciences. In terms of WLHSS, the only members who are first years have come from mainly from the life sciences in the department of molecular biology (1), quantitative and computational biology (1), neuroscience (1), and chemistry (1). Our membership is down from my first year (nine first-year students across the engineering school and the life sciences), and it’s a real issue.   

How important is it for faculty to get out of Princeton to participate in their departmental recruiting efforts? 

It is very important. My decision to come to Princeton ultimately was based on the faculty members that I interacted with at Spelman and faculty interactions during the graduate-program interview process. The interactions I had with the faculty were so inspiring and really got me excited about attending graduate school at a place that had so many resources. I was so excited that I begged the faculty at Spelman to start a journal-reading course based on the discussions I had with Princeton faculty during their visit.

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