In September 2013, Caltech, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and Stanford University founded a new consortium—the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP)—to support underrepresented minority (URM) graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the STEM fields of mathematics, the physical sciences, computer science, and engineering. The alliance, launched through a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), was created to address the fact that minority students enter STEM fields in disproportionately low numbers and that, as a group, their progress slows at each step in their academic careers.
"AGEP is one of the few focused programs that's intentional about changing the demographics of faculty," says Hanna Song, Caltech's senior director for diversity. "Each of these scholars is at the top of their game. This program brings them together for their postdoctoral journey in a cohort-like model and pairs them with principal investigators who are committed to making sure the scholars have everything they need to go on to become faculty, should they wish to do so."
In addition to mentoring and support at individual universities, AGEP hosts a yearly retreat for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research scientists, and faculty from the four participating institutions.
"This has really been an extraordinary cohort of postdocs, and it has been a privilege to work with them and help them prepare for their future professional career," says Doug Rees, principal investigator on the AGEP grant, Caltech's dean of graduate studies and the Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson Professor of Chemistry. "In addition to the NSF funding, we have been fortunate to have support from President Rosenbaum [the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics], provost Ed Stolper [the William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology and Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair], division chairs, and individual faculty. We have really been able to bring in a range of resources to support these postdocs."
Three of the AGEP postdocs are now moving on to the next steps in their careers. We asked them to describe career goals and lessons learned, and to give advice to the next generation of scientists.
Hinojosa's work in the laboratory of Professor of Geobiology Alex Sessions used sediment cores from New Zealand lakes to understand climate dynamics in the Southern Hemisphere.
I will be starting a position at Shell as an organic geochemist. Although I'm moving to the private sector, I still love research and academia and would like to stay connected to that world. AGEP has been an amazing networking resource as I navigated the next step in my career. Both at Caltech and the annual retreat, I have met some wonderful people through this program. I hope to maintain those contacts as my career progresses.
If I could give advice to aspiring URM scientists, I would say—let your unique background be one of your strengths. At times, it can be intimidating to be in a room of people that look different from you, but that means you have a perspective that they may not. Keep fighting the uphill battle until the upper echelons of academia and other STEM industries look as diverse as we know they should be.
Working with Professor of Geobiology Woody Fischer and Professor of Geology Michael Lamb, Torres studied the role of river floodplain dynamics in the global carbon and oxygen cycles.
I am starting a tenure-track assistant professorship in the earth science department at Rice University. My appointment there will begin in July and I'll be building a new biogeochemistry laboratory. The AGEP program provided me with a lot of support, especially through AGEP principal investigators Doug Rees and Cindy Weinstein [Eli and Edythe Broad Professor of English, vice provost, and chief diversity officer] who were always there to give advice when needed.
My advice to any aspiring scientists would be to seek out all funding opportunities for which you are eligible and to apply to all of them. There are lots of poorly advertised resources out there that are available to support your career. While it takes time to fill out all of the applications, the act of applying itself is a great way to organize one's thoughts.
Working with John Grotzinger, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology and Ted and Ginger Jenkins Leadership Chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, Watkins studied the stratigraphy and structure of Gale Crater on Mars.
Post Caltech, I will be moving to Houston to begin training as an astronaut. My ultimate goal is broadly to contribute to planetary and human exploration through participation in NASA missions. My time as an AGEP fellow at Caltech working on the NASA Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover has fostered my interest in, as well as prepared me for, this type of role, and I am excited about where this goal may lead me! One of the most important impacts the AGEP program has had on my career is the network of several top-tier academic institutions it has enabled me to access and build from, both during my tenure at Caltech and moving forward. Also, the space that the AGEP program has provided, particularly at the annual retreat, to consider my identity as a URM scientist and create community amongst other URM scientists has been invaluable thus far and will certainly continue to be so in the future.
The advice I would give to aspiring URM scientists would be to find something you are passionate about and pursue it relentlessly! There are always open doors if you are willing to work hard enough to find them.
The AGEP program is administered at Caltech by the Caltech Center for Diversity. The Center recently received the Caltech Team Impact Award for its efforts to increase inclusion and representation throughout the Institute.