UC Davis launches new Ph.D. diversity initiative in biotechnology

A new UC systemwide program led by chemical engineering professor Karen McDonald and the UC Davis Biotechnology program, in collaboration with Sacramento State University (Sac State), will help graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds improve their understanding of and preparation for academic careers in the professoriate.

With two years of funding from the University of California’s Hispanic Serving Institution (UC-HSI) Doctoral Diversity Initiative Project, the Advancing Diversity by Educating the Professors of Tomorrow (ADEPT) program will launch in fall 2020, planning to build a pipeline of graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds in biotechnology to faculty through tailored mentorship and access to research fellowships.

“Even though more people from diverse backgrounds are getting advanced degrees, we still aren’t seeing a big change in the diversity of STEM faculty,” said Denneal Jamison-McClung, director of the UC Davis Biotechnology Program. “It’s moving in the right direction, but there’s still a pipeline problem that we hope to help solve.”

McDonald and Jamison-McClung feel that demystifying academic career paths through mentorship and professional networking will be a step in the right direction. Many Ph.D. students in biotechnology-related fields know about the great career opportunities in industry, but may be less familiar with the potential benefits of working in academia, such as the opportunity to bring new innovations to market via start-ups. To change this, ADEPT will build relationships between faculty and students at UC Davis and Sac State that provides a strong mentor network and comprehensive look at faculty jobs in both types of institutions.

“Working on whatever you’d like with new people and young students is very intellectually-stimulating, but they don’t really get to see that part of academia,” said McDonald.

The Biotechnology Program at UC Davis is a perfect place to implement ADEPT because the field touches almost all STEM disciplines, from chemical engineering to data science to plant biology. The program will establish workshops, quarterly meetings and a yearly symposium to build community among these students from diverse backgrounds.

McDonald and Jamison-McClung are excited to work with collaborators at Sac State, where many biotechnology Ph.D. students earn their master’s before transferring to UC Davis. For the next two summers, the Advancement and Achievement via Graduate Education, Information and Opportunity (AdAGIO) Summer Research Fellowship will fund biotechnology research at UC Davis for three UC Davis Ph.D. students and three Sac State master’s students.

In addition to providing career and research mentorship for graduate students, ADEPT aims to facilitate the establishment of research collaborations between participating faculty at Sacramento State University and UC Davis.

“It’s regionally-important for UC Davis and Sac State to work together on these kinds of initiatives if we’re going to help local students coming from underserved backgrounds,” said Jamison-McClung.

To inform their approach, McDonald and Jamison-McClung plan to use their experiences as director and program coordinator, respectively, of the UC Davis ADVANCE program. An NSF-funded program, UC Davis ADVANCE recruits and supports diverse STEM faculty with tailored mentorship and professional development opportunities. The program also investigated barriers to academic careers for Latinas in STEM and collected data that highlighted the importance of early career mentorship. ADEPT will extend these lessons and programs to biotechnology graduate students from underserved backgrounds.

“This is a way to formalize a program that broadens students’ interest while they’re getting their master’s so they take a look at the faculty career path, as well as an industry path,” said McDonald.

Learn more about ADEPT.

Learn more about the UC Davis Biotechnology Program.

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