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Putting MSU on the "GeoPAth" to diversity in the Earth Sciences

With support from a two-year, $250,000 National Science Foundation GeoPAths grant, Matt Schrenk, assistant professor, and Julie Libarkin, professor, both from MSU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) in the College of Natural Science, are embarking on a collective effort to change the geoscience landscape with GeoCaFES (Communities and Future Earth Scientists), a bridge program that connects Latinx undergraduates with geoscientist mentors, graduate school opportunities and future Earth Science jobs.

Screen shot of all team members involved in the study
The GeoCaFES research team landed an NSF GeoPAths grant to recruit Latinx undergraduates into geoscience graduate school. Starting at the top left: Matt Schrenk; Julie Libarkin; Ken Voglesonger; Shreya Patel, STEM advisor at NEIU and GeoCaFES collaborator; and Rocío Caballero-Gill. Photo: Matt Schrenk

GeoCaFES was developed in equal partnership with Rocío Caballero-Gill, co-founder of GeoLatinas (Latinas in Earth and Planetary Sciences), and Ken Voglesonger, associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) in Chicago. Both are first-generation college graduates.

“GeoCaFES is about asking how EES, as a space, can be made more equitable,” said Libarkin, Co-PI and head of the Geocognition Research Laboratory whose well-respected research includes Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the Earth Sciences. “The geosciences are one of the least diverse of the sciences, and on top of that, we have a workforce crisis.”

Research shows that while the geoscience community is mostly white and middle to upper class, the environmental concerns that geoscientists often study—water quality, agricultural contamination and climate change to name a few—largely affect non-white populations who live in communities directly affected by these issues.

Even though the geosciences are one of the least diverse disciplines by traditional metrics, they also have some of the most diverse and accessible career paths on the planet. With over 130,000 geoscience jobs waiting to be filled, GeoCaFES will act as a bridge program, connecting and supporting Latinx students from undergraduate education into the EES program.

Schrenk, the lead PI who holds an additional appointment in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, said collaboration is key to opening up diverse opportunities for diverse students.

Graphic of GeoCafe ecosystem
GeoCaFES will establish a sustainable, geoscience learning ecosystem for Latinx students so they can enter graduate school connected to jobs, their family and community, mentors and other Latinx students. Credit: GeoCaFES Research Team

“GeoCaFES will broaden our scope to open up opportunities for biologists, chemists, physicists and Latinx students in other disciplines to access and find geoscience jobs,” Schrenk explained. “GeoLatinas and NEIU are key because they already have a mentoring infrastructure and connections with the industry professionals that we are striving to establish.”

Caballero-Gill, a paleoclimatologist and paleoceanographer at Brown University, will bring an incredible depth of virtual and international networking to the project.

“One of the most important results of co-founding GeoLatinas is seeing the powerful impact that a community has not only in our (Latinas and non-Latina members) wellbeing, but also in our professional lives, our view of who we are and how we fit in our fields, and the potential of reaching for the stars—together,” she said.

Voglesonger, who directs NEIU’s Student Center for Science Engagement, will help recruit Latinx students into EES graduate programs and host workshops to harness community support and engender a sense of belonging in graduate education.

“The Earth Sciences have long struggled with issues related to representation and diversity,” Voglesonger said. “GeoCaFES will not only recruit diverse participants, but will also take the next, necessary step of intentionally creating environments in which those students and their experiences are valued, welcomed and embraced. This will prepare students for graduate education in the Earth Sciences and for the careers of their choice afterwards.”

Schrenk and Libarkin are using the GeoPAths grant to make changes to EES by inviting seminar speakers from energy and environmental science sectors, assembling geoscience career panels and integrating courses on grant writing and careers into the Earth Science curriculum.

The grant will also develop and train EES faculty in evidence-based, sustainable mentoring practices to facilitate the growing diversity of students and research, giving EES a real chance for changing the geoscience landscape and transforming the local landscape of the communities that Latinx students come from.

“The kinds of questions that are asked in a discipline, and the kinds of answers you come up with, really depend upon who gets to ask the question and who gets to answer,” Libarkin said. “Are we going to be asking questions about the environmental impact on underserved communities if we are not part of those communities? Maybe, but we are much more likely to be asking and answering important questions if we have colleagues who are from those spaces.”

“This is just one type of pathway to improving the culture and diversity of geosciences, and it will require creativity, persistence, listening and interacting with the communities to understand what those pathways might look like,” Schrenk added. “I am looking forward to engaging with students, getting them excited about the geosciences and developing sustainable structures and cultural changes in our field.”

For additional details about the grant, please visit the NSF website here

 

Banner image: Tourists taking in Gros Morne Park, Newfoundland, Canada where geoscientist Matt Schrenk conducts research. Schrenk and members of the GeoCaFES team are working to build paths connecting Latinx graduate students from all backgrounds with Earth Science careers that will change the geoscience landscape. Photo: Matt Schrenk

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