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Finding your place: The value of the Graduate Diversity Enrichment Network

I arrived at the Trent Semans Center at Duke University to find the room filled with familiar faces — laughing, chatting, getting food, and finding seats. I lingered near the door to talk to a friend who was dealing with a family crisis. I waved to a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Diversity Enrichment Program (BWF PDEP) scholar and crossed the room to hug her. We made plans to sit together and catch up.

When I started the PhD program in Cell and Molecular Biology at Duke University five years ago, I had taken an unusual path to graduate school. It started as a fairly typical story. I am the daughter of two teachers. My mother taught junior high school biology in our small Mississippi hometown. I loved studying biology, and I had a good memory, so I did well. In college, I started to get glimpses of how scientists learned the things that appeared in text books. I read about famous experiments in genetics. I learned how to perform experiments in a molecular biology lab. I wrote an undergraduate thesis. My advisor and other professors encouraged me to go to graduate school. I considered it, but I hesitated.

A college an hour’s drive from home was manageable, but graduate school would mean moving someplace unfamiliar, perhaps even to a city. More important than the geographical shift was the psychological one. It would mean leaving places where I had confidence that I could do well — my small hometown, my small college — for places where I really wasn’t so sure. So, instead of going to graduate school, I found a job. I didn’t know it at the time, but this uncertainty wasn’t unusual. It also wasn’t something I could figure out by myself, because I was trying to navigate something far outside of my own experience, or that of anyone I knew. I didn’t know it, but I needed a network.

The meeting I walked into last March was the first fruit of the BWF Graduate Diversity Enrichment Network (GDEN). GDEN was created this year by BWF to build a coalition of supporters for underrepresented minority (URM) doctoral students in STEM fields in North Carolina. Graduate training in the sciences is challenging for any student, but URM trainees often face additional hurdles stemming from historical discrimination, including implicit and explicit biases, lack of access to social networks, and limited resources. For these students, navigating the complex academic terrain can feel overwhelming, and those who don’t find support may leave science altogether. Helping students get into graduate school only meets part of their need. Most need even more guidance once they matriculate.

To address this problem in North Carolina, representatives from Duke University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill gathered this winter at the BWF headquarters in Research Triangle Park to discuss ways to support URM students. The network is intentionally cross-institutional and multilevel, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, and administrators. This gives students opportunities to develop peer-to-peer networks across institutions, as well as to make connections who might become mentors, collaborators, or employers (or all three!).

As an inaugural event, we planned an evening networking meeting for students and postdoctoral fellows. For this first event, we focused on sharing information about grant opportunities. Applying for funding is a notoriously daunting process, requiring an original and detailed research plan, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and often, a budget. For the most competitive fellowships, less than 10% of applicants might be selected. In addition, most graduate students have had limited exposure to the grant-writing process. It often seems easier (and perhaps a better use of time) not to apply. But, any task, including grant-writing, is more manageable when you have a community to help you. And the bonus? Securing funding builds your network even faster!

In fact, as we learned from our keynote speaker, North Carolina native Dr. George Langford, building a network is critical for any academic’s success. A graduate of Fayetteville State University (a historically black institution), Dr. Langford’s career has spanned more than 40 years as a faculty member and administrator at predominantly white institutions. From this perspective, he understands that it is critical for URM scientists to access professional networks. His own experience moved him, as a BWF board member, to lead efforts to establish fellowships that would specifically support URMs. “Hard work,” he said, “is not enough.” Students also need to develop strategies to overcome the inevitable roadblocks, and for this, a network is invaluable.

Following the keynote, we did exactly that. I was privileged to join Dr. Langford, Dr. Melanie McReynolds (PDEP 2018, postdoctoral fellow, Princeton University), Dr. Daniel Dominguez (PDEP 2017, assistant professor, UNC-Chapel Hill), and moderator Dr. Antonio Baines (associate professor, North Carolina Central University) on a panel to discuss how we’ve dealt with challenges. Not surprisingly, our advice often returned to the value of community. Having a network means having someone to read my personal statement and make that fellowship application a little less frightening. It means seeing a friend at a conference and feeling less lonely. It means sharing my self-doubt with someone who understands.

As a new PhD student, I had no network. But now I rarely go anywhere (even huge conferences) without seeing several familiar faces. How did I do it? I took one opportunity at a time — whether applying for a grant, volunteering for a student organization, introducing a speaker, or organizing a journal club — and each led to another. In almost imperceptible steps, I’m building a community, and a career.

Learn more about the Graduate Diversity Enrichment Program and tune in to our live Twitter chat with #bwfGDEP on Monday, June 10th at 7 P.M. to hear from prior awardees: 

Rossie Clark-Cotton

Rossie Clark-Cotton is a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Cell Biology at Duke University, where she studies how cells track chemical signals in the laboratory of Dr. Daniel Lew. She is completing her second term as president of the Bouchet Society, an organization of graduate students in STEM fields at Duke. Rossie is a 2017 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Graduate Diversity Enrichment Program awardee and a 2016 recipient of the Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. When she’s away from the lab, Rossie enjoys reading and singing alto in the Duke Chapel Choir.