- Author: Faith Kearns
By any measure, Aradhna Tripati is a brilliant scientist. She began college full-time at the age of 12, has been on the faculty at UCLA since 2009, and received tenure in 2014. Her lab focuses on the role of the carbon cycle in a changing climate and climate change impacts, and she and the group have published prolifically.
In the last several years, she has turned her attention to creating more opportunities for students like her – those that faced similar barriers. Tripati's upbringing is indeed one unusual for her field. She says, “My parents are from Fiji with Indian ancestry. They immigrated and dealt with racism, incarceration, and homelessness in the US. The scope of these issues for students like me – women and minorities, and including people of various gender identities and sexual orientations – has drawn me toward fostering success for other people from diverse paths that have faced various forms of oppression.”
To ensure that students like her can thrive in science and community engagement, Tripati developed the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science at UCLA. The inclusive program includes not only high school, community college, and undergraduate students, but faculty as well. This intergenerational approach is intentional, aimed at fostering a community that can recruit, retain, and support students at all stages of their education.
“There has been a big focus on recruiting under-represented students into science-related fields. What we've really found over time is that students want to be here, but staying can often be difficult because we don't put as many resources into retention, which just leads to further isolation for those that stay,” says Tripati. “Whether it's more support for college readiness, financial stability, or familial issues, we work to support students to stay in the field. In our program, all students receive some form of financial support, they work on diverse research and outreach or engagement teams, and they have faculty fellows as their advisors. At the same time, those faculty members are being trained to better support students with inclusive mentoring practices. That full spectrum approach is crucial.”
Developing community is also key, notes Tripati. “Science environments can be isolating and competitive for people who may be the first or only person with their identity in a group. We work to create a sense of belonging and build an inclusive community of scholars, researchers, communicators, and professionals who are empowered as leaders,” she says. “My goal is that this will also spread across all of STEM – and across higher education institutions – and far beyond the university and into the organizations our fellows become part of as they go through their careers. Right now, the pipeline is not being developed, and there are high attrition rates for underserved groups at every educational stage, sometimes as high as 50 percent.”
The Center has already trained 118 early career fellows and over 20 faculty fellows. Student fellows propose and then lead community engagement programs that they are personally and professionally invested in. It is clear in hearing from students that it has been the opportunity of a lifetime. They speak to Tripati's warmth and welcoming, to the community that they develop, and to the support that they receive.
For example, Danielle Hoague is a Black doctoral student who grew up in Altadena near an area that was declared a Superfund site due to rocket fuel contaminated groundwater, now they are studying the site and related environmental justice efforts. Naomi Adams is a Black doctoral student in engineering interested in developing technological solutions to public health challenges in vulnerable communities. Venezia Ramirez is a Chicanx student involved in multiple collaborative research projects, including remediation of contaminated soils and waters in East LA, and hopes to go on to work for the government to support communities of color in removing environmental hazards.
“In my mind, science is for everyone. And the issues we face, from climate change to pandemics to inequality, are interrelated and take collaboration to solve. I am motivated by social movements, where many individuals serve as agents of change by listening, learning, amplifying voices, and finding ways to connect with others,” says Tripati. “In the Center, I encourage people to see themselves as both teachers and learners, as community-minded scientists, and to give equal weight to their programs of research and public engagement. Before we started, there was nothing else like this. The demand is unbelievable. And the return on investment is huge. With our model, our fellows practice the skills we need to build and strengthen the fabric of a civil society, where they will be the connective tissue.”
Read more about the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science in their recent Annual Report.