Graduate Student Workshop Promotes Increasing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Interdisciplinary Research

A screen shot of a virtual session of the DEI workshop, with participants each in a frame

This year, SESYNC’s annual Graduate Student Workshop on Socio-Environmental Synthesis took on a new focus—increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in team-based, socio-environmental (S-E) synthesis research. To reflect this change, SESYNC renamed the event, as the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Socio-Environmental Synthesis Workshop, aiming to:

  1. Celebrate the insights, abilities, and problem-solving capacities gained from embracing diverse backgrounds and identities in S-E synthesis research and on teams
  2. Provide a research platform to channel such benefits into fully funded, independent, interdisciplinary team experiences (i.e., Graduate Pursuits) that help advance and highlight underrepresented voices and contributions in science.

Over an 8-week period, 25 graduate students—representing universities across North America and a wide array of disciplines and backgrounds—gathered together weekly for 2 hours of intensive and interactive online training. Each week’s session focused on a different topic—such as “Enhancing S-E Synthesis Capacities to Promote Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ)” and “Advancing DEIJ with Actionable Science”—to help participants build the skill set needed to undertake an interdisciplinary S-E research collaboration, while simultaneously advancing DEIJ through research practices, processes, and outcomes. 

The need for a skill-building, networking, and mentoring experience specifically tailored to the interests, perspectives, and needs of graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds, ultimately led to the workshop’s multidimensional design. Throughout the workshop’s course, participants engaged in sessions and activities intended to enhance their abilities to: tackle complex S-E issues; produce actionable research outcomes; facilitate dynamic, interdisciplinary interactions; and grow scholarly, as well as friendly, networks and communities.

Fostering community was especially important this year, as SESYNC hosted the workshop online—a first in the event’s eight-year history. Originally scheduled as an in-person workshop at the Center last March (in partnership with the Ecological Society of America’s SEEDS program), this year’s program was re-envisioned in response to COVID-19 and developed into an 8-week virtual series beginning in late July. 

Though the workshop may have moved online, SESYNC designed the program to retain as much of the in-person event’s community-building and exchange as possible, with even greater mentorship opportunities and accessibility to event leaders. In fact, new this year was the inclusion of three DEI mentors, all underrepresented minority scientists themselves, who played essential roles in the conceptualization and implementation of a workshop focused on creating a welcoming, open, and inviting space where all could feel seen, understood, and heard. In addition to joining and leading some of the sessions, mentors were available to students for Zoom office hours.

For some participants, having these mentors—Drs. Fushcia HooverVarsha Vijay, and Jorge Ramos—available to them and learning their stories was a highlight of the event. 

“I really appreciated learning about their different journeys,” shared one participant. “it was affirming to see all of their success and unique pathways to where they are now. The openness with which they welcomed us in the workshops/office hours was motivating. Thank you to each of them for their time and energy over these past few weeks!”

Another wrote, “This might be the first time I've experienced mentorship from a place of deep respect and caring first, and intellectual guidance second. It completely changed the dynamic and made the whole experience brighter, lighter, and better.” 

In addition to the two-hour weekly sessions, workshop participants had other opportunities to connect and share their experiences with one another, from DEI-related forums to social happy hours. Participants also used a Slack community group to continue their discussions and communicate with one another outside of the workshop. 

The opportunity that these communication forums provided, enabling participants to build a network among their peers, was especially important for some. “What I found most valuable was getting time to talk in less structured ways with mentors and other students,” one participant shared.

The graduate students not only found value in the networking component of the workshop, but the skills they grew conducting interdisciplinary S-E research and integrating DEIJ. 

As one student wrote, “I think the overviews of different theoretical frameworks for SES work was particularly valuable for me because that's the kind of material that is not often taught in academic programs since it doesn't quite fit into any specific departmental category.”

And some are already thinking about how they can incorporate what they’ve learned into their current work.

“I intend to use what I learned about creating more diverse and inclusive spaces, particularly in an academic/research setting to help improve the experience that graduate students have in my department,” one participant wrote. They continued, “I also am now more motivated to really incorporate multi-disciplinary work into my dissertation. Before I often felt like I was just saying this, but now I feel more prepared and aware of what is necessary to include others from multiple fields into my research.”

To help put their newly gained skills and connections to use, at the conclusion of the workshop, SESYNC offered participants an opportunity to submit proposals for a Graduate Research Pursuit, with coaching around the idea, project, and proposal development.

“I think a Graduate Pursuit option sounds like a great opportunity to not only develop my own research ideas but also to get to know other graduate students in different institutions and fields,” one student shared.

In the end, the workshop and subsequent community of scholars synthesized personal and scientific differences to improve participants’ understanding of problems and find comprehensive, systems-level solutions. The event also gave SESYNC the opportunity to further its commitment to DEI and build toward transforming the way science is thought about and done, and by whom.

Dr. Nicole Motzer, SESYNC’s Assistant Director for Interdisciplinary Science and workshop organizer, reflected on the opportunity this way: “As an organization whose mission centers around bridging differences and elevating diversity in order to better solve complex environmental problems, it was really important to us to commit our time, thoughts, and resources in a way that reflects our strong support for these things.” She continued, “We want to elevate everyone, to remove any barriers we can, because we know how wonderful the results of more inclusive and equitable research are for all involved. We hope this workshop played a small part in achieving that broader goal, and we are excited to use the Graduate Pursuit platform to continue highlighting the contributions of this incredible and incredibly diverse group.”