Friday, January 4, 2013

Working to make the highest reaches of science more inclusive, Daniel Eberl and Michael Anderson, faculty members in the Genetics Interdisciplinary Graduate Program, want to attract the brightest underrepresented students to study at the University of Iowa. But even more importantly, they want those students to have a positive experience that translates to success after college.

The University of Iowa’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity and the Chief Diversity Office selected Eberl and Anderson as co-recipients of the 2012 Diversity Catalyst Award. The award honors “distinctive and innovative initiatives during the past year that have promoted an inclusive and diverse campus community.”

The award committee cited a “high level of commitment to and investment in creating a welcoming and inclusive campus environment,” and went on to praise Eberl and Anderson for their work’s “visible impact on our community.”

Eberl, professor of biology and director of the Genetics Graduate Program, says the goal goes beyond boosting the number of underrepresented students in the program—the faculty and staff want to enhance students’ research experiences and professional development.

“The real goal is to train underrepresented students as all of our other students—for excellence,” says Eberl, who says this is a key to long-term success.

“It doesn’t really help the efforts for diversity to string along and train mediocre scientists. The biggest inroads—even if it’s fewer numbers—are going to be made in training them so they can actually be competitive when they graduate and go on in their careers.”

This is where recruiting comes in. The demographics of Iowa make it challenging to attract significant numbers of underrepresented graduate students to the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Genetics. In addition, Eberl says, there are relatively few students interested in the biomedical sciences as a whole, let alone genetics. One remedy has been to partner with historically black colleges and other institutions with relatively large populations of underrepresented students.

While the program would like to attract underrepresented applicants from Iowa and the Midwest, currently all of its underrepresented students come from the University of the Virgin Islands and several campuses in the University of Puerto Rico system, the result of a partnership between the UI and those universities.

The University of Iowa’s summer undergraduate research programs, including its Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP), give faculty a chance to invite top underrepresented students to Iowa for a summer of advanced study.

“Sometimes the big challenge is getting them here in the first place,” Eberl says. “Once they’re here, they have a good research experience and they realize that Iowa City is a great place to live, has a lot to offer, and has a community of underrepresented people here. Then Iowa becomes an attractive place for them to apply for graduate school.”

This partnership also shapes undergraduate curriculum and preparation for advanced work in science. Eberl says professors and administrators at the partner universities are really interested in getting feedback to better prepare students for graduate study and careers as researchers.

Eberl credits Anderson’s longstanding work toward greater inclusion, such as his attending minority undergraduate conferences, contacting talented science students, and getting them to consider graduate work at Iowa. 

“I’ve been fortunate to meet several students from all sorts of backgrounds in the United States,” Anderson says. “When I first ask about their future plans and whether they might be considering Iowa for graduate school, it’s pretty typical to get a bit of a blank stare. However, one of the great things about Iowa City and the University of Iowa is that they sell themselves very well.

“While we still face challenges, our communities clearly value diversity and visitors here quickly realize that we are launching careers of students from every walk of life.”

Eberl says it’s important for the University of Iowa to recognize advances it has made, such as being the first institution to graduate an African-American lawyer, the first public university in the country to admit women and men on an equal basis, and the first to award an MFA to an African American woman.

Eberl says these are standards to live up to, to continue, and improve upon.

“It’s a continuing challenge, but it’s also encouraging,” Eberl says. “Many challenges have been overcome, many are still there, but just knowing there’s this rich history of strong commitment and effort toward equal opportunity and diversity at the University of Iowa is inspiring and helps to energize and motivate us toward further progress.”