Caltech: Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows Program Promotes Path to More Diverse Professoriate

Caltech postdoctoral scholar Uriah Israel works at the intersection of biology and big data. Under the guidance of David Van Valen, Assistant Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering; Investigator, Heritage Medical Research Institute, and Yisong Yue, professor of computing and mathematical sciences, Israel applies machine learning techniques to analyze single-cell biology data to improve the detection and diagnosis of cancers.

This academic year, his second at Caltech, Israel became one of seven researchers to receive a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship. The fellowship program, which supports efforts to diversify academia by recruiting and supporting promising postdoctoral scholars from underrepresented communities, was established by President Thomas F. Rosenbaum in 2016 and recently expanded to support additional scholars.

“An all-too-common model for universities to diversify their ranks is to move talented, underrepresented faculty members from one institution to another. Lateral moves such as these may make sense for the institution and the individual, but they do not improve the situation across academia,” says Thomas F. Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “By contrast, Caltech’s presidential postdoctoral fellows program is intended to build the cohort of successful underrepresented scholars by identifying outstanding talent early, building community, and providing supportive career mentoring.”

The fellowship program was launched in coordination with the Institute’s involvement in the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), which was a National Science Foundation-funded partnership among Caltech, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and Stanford University. Created to diversify the future of the professorships ranks, AGEP has since grown to include nine schools under the new name Research University Alliance, or RUA. Doug Rees, Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson Professor of Chemistry, investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, serves as the Caltech principal investigator of this effort.

While the alliance has provided modest NSF funding to support diverse postdoctoral fellows at member institutions, Caltech has fulfilled its ambitions to create a much larger cohort of these scholars through Institutional commitments and funding. In allocating divisional and Institute funds to recruit and support postdocs, such as the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows, Caltech has ensured that the young scholars have colleagues across divisions with whom to connect and collaborate. The initial cohort of AGEP scholars and Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows included Jessica Watkins, a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences who made history this spring as the first Black woman to be on an International Space Station crew.

This academic year, Caltech selected its first larger cohort of seven fellows with a goal of continuing to maintain seven fellows at a time, corresponding to an average of two postdocs in each of its six academic divisions. Fellows receive up to $80,000 in funding, or $40,000 per year for two years.

In addition to supporting a larger number of scholars, Rees says the program also is intended to help introduce a new community of postdocs to Caltech and to help them to develop connections with one another and with researchers and faculty across the Institute and peer research universities, providing a network of future collaborators and colleagues.

“As an undergraduate, you have your house at Caltech and the broader college community that you’re a part of,” Rees says. “For graduate students, you have your graduate program as well as the lab you’re in. For postdocs, you’re typically hired by the faculty adviser, and your community often centers more on the lab itself. So, another thing we’re trying to do for the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows is provide a broader community beyond who you might encounter in your lab or immediate research groups.”

This goal resonates with Sergio Pineda-Flores, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Marco Bernardi, professor of applied physics and materials science. “We’ve met (as a group) a few times,” he says. “It’s great. It’s really a small world, right? These people could be very well involved in your life later in your career. I think it’s cool being able to socialize with them and meet them.

Potential postdoctoral scholars interested in the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows program may apply by submitting their diversity statement along with their research statement and letters of recommendation, which are reviewed by a committee of Caltech faculty. Cindy Weinstein, Eli and Edythe Broad Professor of English, helped with the program’s creation. The deadline for the next application cycle is July 15.

“Research has helped us to understand/has made evident that there are important moments, steps in the process when you when you lose women and historically excluded populations in the trajectory from an undergraduate STEM degree to a professorial position,” Weinstein says. “One of the reasons is that we lose a number of extraordinary people who are underrepresented at the professorial level is that they don’t complete the transition from graduate student to postdoc. In dedicating resources and establishing a cohort model to support scholars during this transition, we hope that we can change that. We have focused on postdocs because we wanted to make a difference.”

Meagan Heirwegh, Research University Alliance program coordinator, notes the creation of a fellowship program outside the scope of the original NSF grant gives Caltech more flexibility to support its international postdoctoral community. Unlike the original AGEP program, the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship program is open to those who are not U.S. citizens.

The approach also allows the Institute to promote diversity and inclusion in the postdoctoral ranks more broadly than before. “Because this is a Caltech program, we have a little more flexibility to expand the definition of diversity,” Heirwegh says. “So, the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowships can consider gender identity, LGBTQ+, first-generation college students, those who identify as having a disability, and other categories that we would traditionally consider underrepresented in science.”

Says Rees: “We are delighted how this remarkable cohort of Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows is enriching the campus through their research and engagement in supporting a more inclusive scientific community.”

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