Grassroots, student-led team works with faculty to enhance diversity in the sciences

GRIT co-founder Christina Roman meets with faculty advisor Nancy Schwartz, PhD, dean and director of postdoctoral a airs.
GRIT co-founder Christina Roman meets with faculty advisor Nancy Schwartz, PhD, dean and director of postdoctoral affairs. 

Grit (noun): courage and resolve; strength of character.

There’s no “grit” box for prospective students when applying to graduate programs in the Biological Sciences Division (BSD) at the University of Chicago. It’s a crucial trait for all researchers, who must persevere through the inherent trials and failures of the scientific process. Yet the very applicants for whom grit is often a defining character trait — including underrepresented minorities (URM) and LGBTQ students — have historically had to overcome greater barriers to entry into science.

Launched almost two years ago, the student-led Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT) is working to increase minority graduate enrollment in the BSD, one student at a time.

GRIT members travel to conferences to recruit students, build relationships with candidates, serve in an advisory role in the interview selection process and connect with potential students when they come to campus. And the student leaders have sparked the creation of a permanent forum — the Faculty Diversity Council — for ongoing collaboration on matters of diversity and inclusion within the BSD.

“We have always attempted to involve our underrepresented students in the efforts to enhance diversity here,” said Nancy Schwartz, PhD, dean and director of postdoctoral affairs and GRIT’s faculty advisor. “I think that the coordinated, committed effort on the part of this cohort of students has really taken it to another level.”

One of those efforts has already resulted in a major change in the way the BSD evaluates incoming students. In July, the BSD decided to drop its application requirement for Graduate Record Examination (GRE) standardized test scores. The move was the result of a six-month campaign by students in GRIT, who argued that GRE scores prevent opportunities to include prospective URM students. Instead, they successfully advocated for a more holistic review of graduate applications that places less emphasis on standardized test scores.

‘Someone gave us a chance’

GRIT’s three cofounders — Cody Hernandez, Mat Perez-Neut and Christina Roman — share a common thread in their backstories. “We all come from backgrounds that tell us we shouldn’t be here,” said Hernandez, a doctoral candidate in molecular genetics and cell biology. “But somewhere, someone gave us a chance.”

Their CVs all include an alphabet soup of prestigious national programs — such as the NIH’s Minority Access to Research Careers and Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) — that promote URM participation in scientific fields. “Those initiatives fund the most promising students and give them not only the support they need to become leaders in science but the confidence to believe in themselves,” said Roman, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry and molecular biophysics. “With GRIT, we aim to do the same.”

Cody Hernandez, left, and Mat Perez-Neut are working to expand the GRIT initiative to other institutions.
Cody Hernandez, left, and Mat Perez-Neut are working to expand the GRIT initiative to other institutions.

The launch of GRIT coincided with the students’ shared success on another diversity initiative. Building on the establishment of a new University of Chicago chapter of SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science), GRIT members played a central role in hosting nearly 100 regional graduate students at the first Chicago SACNAS symposium. “That success galvanized us,” Hernandez said. “We realized we had the potential and ability to make an even bigger change.”

GRIT focuses its efforts in three areas: recruitment, retention and sustainability. Whether meeting prospective students for the first time at national URM conferences or at inclusion discussions during the nine on-campus interview weekends, GRIT members approach recruitment not with a formal handshake but a welcoming embrace as they shepherd candidates through every step of the application process.

“Cody and Mat made me feel a part of their community, even though I was only on campus for a weekend,” said Jimmy Elias, now studying cell and molecular biology at the University. “Afterward, they contacted me via email, text and phone calls to provide me further information about diversity initiatives and fellowship opportunities. One day we ended up talking for more than half an hour about a number of my concerns and interests. It was a very sincere discussion and was a signifi ant deciding factor for me.”

Despite their busy schedules, GRIT’s leaders make time whenever possible to connect with prospective students.

We’ve already been given a lot of opportunities to make positive changes. We intend for that momentum to continue.

Perez-Neut, a doctoral candidate studying molecular epigenetics and proteomics, recently had an hour of downtime while in the middle of an experiment. He used the time to call a recruit interested in cancer biology.

“We talked about everything from UChicago culture to the commute, the challenges for first-generation college students and more,” he said. “I know I am not the only one in GRIT making these calls; this culture of connection with URM students lives here now. That’s something I think GRIT inspired and, as a co-founder of GRIT, I’m most proud of.”

That connectivity continues once students arrive on campus. Do they need a private tutor? An introduction to a particular faculty member? Information on a fellowship? As part of its retention efforts, GRIT plugs newcomers into its network of peers, other BSD and campuswide diversity groups, faculty and administrators. “One of our goals is to make sure the students we recruit have an environment in which they can thrive,” Perez-Neut said. For example, if students need to vent, they can do so at the GRIT Wolf’s Den events. “It’s a mental health and wellness check,” Roman said. “We can share our problems and talk about potential solutions. If there is a recurring theme, we can build a workshop around it or take it to the Faculty Diversity Council.”

As GRIT evolved into an umbrella diversity organization — with teams dedicated to URM, LGBTQ and women in STEM — and became a central conduit for inclusion concerns, the Faculty Diversity Council was established to serve as its counterpart. It includes faculty representatives from every BSD department. “We’re the bridge between GRIT and faculty,” Schwartz said. “We keep the communication open and are developing a lot of areas where we can work together.”

Spreading the word

Among such collaborations, GRIT members have made diversity presentations to individual BSD departments and to faculty admissions committees. On the heels of its success in the BSD, GRIT is expanding to the University’s Physical Sciences Division.

GRIT’s reach also is spreading off campus. GRIT members have been invited to speak at conferences around the country, including Scientista, a pre-professional organization for women in STEM, and the national IMSD conference. And GRIT’s leaders have been contacted by graduate students from Vanderbilt University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and other institutions for advice on how to establish GRIT on their own campuses.

“GRIT is moving at a breakneck pace,” Roman said. “We’ve already been given a lot of opportunities to make positive changes. We intend for that momentum to continue. We’re ready and open-minded to be as productive, efficient and inclusive as we can be.”