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STEM group unites women and minorities in UNC graduate programs

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Allies for Minorities and Women in Science and Engineering aims to address the STEM field disparities for UNC students. Policy Initiatives Chair Brittany Huffman, Treasurer Allison Smith, Mentorship & Membership Vice Chair Gabriella Bein, and Membership Chair & GrAM Coordinator Ashley Zachmann, all graduate officers of the chemistry department, are pictured outside of Caudill and Kenan Labs on Wednesday, March 1, 2023.

Michelle Lee, a second-year graduate student in the UNC Department of Physics and Astronomy, said that she has always noticed subtleties in the way women and minorities are treated in STEM.    

Although she said she has never experienced explicit discrimination, she wants to help change the culture of inclusivity in STEM at the University so that no one has to experience feeling isolated in their field.   

Allies for Minorities and Women in Science and Engineering — or AM_WISE — is a group of UNC graduate students who serve as a support system for women and minorities in the sciences. Lee along with Supraja Chittari, a third-year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry, are co-presidents for the group.  

“AM_WISE is all about providing a platform and scaffolding for underrepresented students, graduate students and undergrads alike,” Chittari said. “So, it's important for us to figure out where the holes are in the leaky pipeline here at our University and find ways to address those.”

A main way that the group is addressing inequalities at the University is by conducting a climate survey for the chemistry and physics departments every two years. The survey asks students questions regarding harassment, diversity and inclusion and other feedback about the environment of the departments, Brittany Huffman, a fifth-year graduate student in the chemistry department and officer in AM_WISE, said.

She said women and minorities within the field face greater barriers to success than white men.  

“So, quantifying how that affects our departments and giving the chemistry and physics departments that information on what their current student population is feeling, and specifically how we think that we could improve the graduate experience, is very powerful,” Huffman said.    

Chittari hopes the survey opens opportunities for communication for STEM students of minority backgrounds, which is a common challenge they face in higher education. She believes the survey has been successful because it is done by students, for students, giving them an opportunity to voice their opinions to their respective science departments. 

“Especially if you don't see anybody like you in the faculty, you don't see anybody like you in the department, or the way that you're reflected is only very few and far between, it's hard to find support. And it's hard to communicate your concerns effectively,” Chittari said.  

AM_WISE’s other main initiative is the peer-mentoring program known as GrAM – Graduate Achievement through Mentorship. The program was created with feedback from the first climate survey and helps to ease the transition from undergraduate to graduate school for science students from underrepresented communities. 

Huffman said a lot of scientists who are first-generation or from underrepresented communities have a smaller network of people in science academia to help them navigate the system. 

The program groups incoming graduate students with older graduate students to build professional skills and community.   

Lee learned a lot from her GrAM mentor about the "do's and don'ts" of starting graduate school. When she became a mentor herself, she said she enjoyed giving back and helping younger students.  

“It's hard to go out of your way to communicate with older graduate students – it can be intimidating as well,” Lee said. “So I appreciated that AM_WISE created an environment where that could just naturally happen.” 

Lee said that many graduate students, especially women and minorities, are overlooked by professors and faculty members. Her goal in AM_WISE is to make sure graduate students are happy in the studies they are pursuing and that the science departments are held accountable.

She said there is a sense of community built through AM_WISE, as she has been able to connect with other women in STEM outside of her department.    

“I don't think the graduate schools necessarily, other than maybe an annual holiday party, have any events that allow the graduate students to mingle especially when it comes to women and minorities in STEM,” Lee said. “So, it's a nice platform to know that there's a group of very supportive advocates out there.”  

AM_WISE’s board is made up primarily of women, Lee said, which she thinks can sometimes be a roadblock to their mission. She calls on people of other genders and identities to participate in the movement for supporting women and minorities in STEM. 

“Obviously we understand the burden of having these identities better than anyone else, but just because you don't have them, doesn't mean you can't be an ally,” Lee said. “I think it'd be great if we had some support from other genders and other people.”

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