Caltech: CCE Charts Path in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

In recent years, Caltech has undertaken a series of initiatives focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that have included initiatives such as renaming campus buildings, conducting a campus climate survey, and increasing support for students of color and other underrepresented groups. At the same time, its academic divisions have begun diversity-focused efforts of their own. They have created committees to review their processes and make recommendations about how they can create a more welcoming and supportive environment for students from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances. Out of those committees have sprung endowed funds that provide scholarships, new programs that have established pipelines with minority-serving institutions, mentoring for underrepresented students, and more.

To highlight these efforts, we are beginning a new series that looks how each division is tackling these important issues and the contributions that faculty, staff, students, and donors are making to them. The series begins with the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, whose diversity programs are beginning to bear fruit.

“Campus became galvanized around the George Floyd murder,” says chemistry professor Brian Stoltz, who has overseen the division’s DEI efforts. “A lot of people looked around the world and said it’s hard to change the world, but we control our destiny on campus, so let’s try to make this the most inclusive place we can.”

Dennis Dougherty, the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry and Norman Davidson Leadership Chair of CCE, praised the strides made so far in the division.

“Brian and the Diversity Committee have done a great job of developing new programs and making sure that DEI efforts are part of everything we do in CCE,” he says.

Stoltz, the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry and investigator with the Heritage Medical Research Institute, says that CCE aimed to take a bottom-up approach to DEI initiatives, allowing research groups—and the students in them—to bring forth proposals for making the division a more inclusive place.

“David Cagan [chemistry graduate student] of the Diversity in Chemistry Initiative came up with the idea for DEI coordinators modeled after safety officers in the division. Each group would have a DEI coordinator that would promote DEI values within the research group,” he says. “That’s a nice way for us to have student boots on the ground.”

In between the research groups and the division administration is a nine-member diversity committee whose members include students, postdocs, and faculty members. The committee meets on a monthly basis to coordinate the efforts of the research groups and bring issues up to the administration, Stoltz says.

Initiatives undertaken by the division so far include:

The creation of a pool of money to fund student travel to conferences and offer paid fellowships to students who do not have the financial resources of their own to afford such trips. Funding was provided by both the division and donations from some faculty members’ research budgets.
Adoption of the Future Ignited program—a virtual conference that connects students of color considering a graduate degree in chemistry, particularly those attending HBCUs, minority-serving institutions, and small liberal art schools, with current CCE graduate students. Chemistry Professor Theodor Agapie led the effort in CCE and Candace Rypsisi, assistant vice provost and director of Student-Faculty Programs, led it at the Institute level. Stoltz says several hundred people attended last year’s conference, and enough of them were admitted to Caltech to give CCE its most diverse class yet.
The Donald Alstadt Workshop: The workshop, one part of the Future Ignited program, sends Caltech students and faculty members to local colleges to speak with underrepresented and low-income students about careers in science and engineering, and the Caltech experience. It was spearheaded by Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and Founding Director of the Beckman Institute.
Caltech Shines: Together with the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering (BBE), CCE now offers a day in which prospective BBE and CCE students can virtually visit campus to see what student life at the Institute might offer them. The day includes the organization of affinity groups for the students that, Stoltz says, allow them to see “there are people here like me.” Caltech Shines was created through the efforts of Bil Clemons, the Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Biochemistry; Michael Dickinson, the Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering and Aeronautics; and Stoltz.
Peer-to-peer mentoring in collaboration with Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, a private, nonprofit, minority-serving graduate school in the Los Angeles-area community of Willowbrook. The family of James R. Preer (PhD ’70), who taught at an HBCU after receiving his degree from Caltech, is funding a program in which Caltech students are paired up with students from Charles Drew. Caltech students will help mentor Charles Drew students who are interested in attending Caltech. The program is led by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Scott Cushing, who recently won the inaugural Shirley M. Malcom Prize for Excellence in Mentoring, in part for this work.
New WAVE Fellowships. The family of James Preer also donated funds to support nine additional WAVE fellowships aimed toward students from HBCUs who are interested in chemistry— three per year for three years. WAVE fellowships provide students from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to conduct research with Caltech faculty members, with the goal of increasing diversity in STEM doctoral programs. Gray also led this effort.
The establishment of the James LuValle Award. The award honors James LuValle, Olympic athlete and Caltech’s first Black graduate to receive a PhD in chemistry. The award will be given in recognition of an individual’s work in furthering diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in CCE. The award will include $500 for the recipient.