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Participants in the 2019 IGEN Conference.
By Brián Clash
The sweeping campus of the University of Central Florida (UCF) provided the backdrop for the first national meeting of the Inclusive Graduate Education Network (IGEN), which took place from October 25 to October 27 in Orlando, Florida. IGEN is a partnership between scientific societies, including APS, and institutions of higher education with the goal of increasing the number of physics PhDs earned by underrepresented minority students. The 2019 IGEN National Meeting focused on bringing together professional scientists, underrepresented minority students, and scholars of equity and inclusion in graduate education.
Over 160 attendees joined for the weekend’s events, which officially began on Friday evening. IGEN Project Director Theodore Hodapp gave a brief overview of IGEN and welcomed attendees to the meeting before introducing the speaker of the hour, APS Vice President Sylvester James Gates, Jr.
A room that had been abuzz with conversation quickly became silent as Gates, a theoretical physicist, walked the audience through the story of his life and accomplishments. From his accidental completion of two bachelor’s degrees in physics and math to his National Medal of Science, awarded by President Obama in 2013, Gates’ life has been one of determination and courage to try new things. He concluded his talk with a message he hoped each person would remember as they continued on their own journey: He urged listeners to acknowledge the sacrifices of their family members that came before them and the effects of those sacrifices on what they have achieved.
On Saturday morning, attendees filled the Fairwinds Alumni Center at UCF for breakfast and the opening plenary. Geraldine Cochran, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at Rutgers University, centered her talk on defining the terms diversity, equity, and inclusion and emphasized the need for IGEN affiliates to create a shared language. Her discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which can often be seen as an uncomfortable topic, tackled implicit bias, microaggressions, and historical and present injustices. Cochran’s talk asked individuals to take stock of their own commitment to act against oppression and inequity in all arenas, not just in the sciences.
Her talk echoed the main goals of the IGEN initiative and the key themes of the conference program: the importance of considering the cultural, racial, and social identities of students and employees and the need to create inclusive spaces in graduate education. Provided with a takeaway slide, attendees were able to leave the plenary with a much clearer understanding of diversity and what they can do to create change.
The conference goers were then able to attend several concurrent breakout sessions on a variety of topics. In one session, Julie Posselt and Casey Miller talked about creating more holistic review practices in graduate admissions in an effort to enable more equitable outcomes. Attendees were also able to learn how common admissions practices inhibit access for underrepresented groups.
As the program continued, there were ample opportunities for networking among students, leaders in graduate education, and those committed to diversity. Undergraduate and graduate students participated in a poster session that yielded one first-place winner and two second-place winners. All three awards went to students from the APS Bridge Program, the Society's effort to increase the number of physics PhDs awarded to underrepresented minority students.
The graduate student panel, led by UCF graduate student and Bridge Program Fellow Brian Zamarripa Roman, provided the opportunity for panelists to share real-life perspectives and lessons learned. The panelists—some currently in graduate programs and others recently graduated—provided tips for other students such as practicing humility, balancing work and self-care, and being prepared to network. It was a timely message, as the program transitioned into the networking portion of the afternoon.
During the networking fair, the room swirled with a harmony of voices engaging in thoughtful conversation, seeking knowledge about employment opportunities, and creating connection over shared interests. Attendees were able to find out more information about national labs, industry leaders, educational institutions, and IGEN professional societies such as the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, and APS.
Sunday, the final day of the conference, found attendees filled with plenty of knowledge from the day before but still seeking more. APS Education and Diversity Programs Manager Erika Brown provided tools for building self-confidence and using this confidence to address imposter syndrome in oneself and in others. Her workshop ended with a reminder of value and an encouragement to attendees: “You belong here, I belong here, we all belong here.”
As the conference came to a close, Hodapp thanked everyone for their attendance and for making the meeting a success. He left all with the reminder that IGEN is about making personal connections through relationships. Those relationships cause us to be better students, educators, champions for diversity, and most of all, better people.
For more information about the Inclusive Graduate Education Network, please visit igenetwork.org.
The author is Senior Coordinator and the Bridge Program Manager at APS.
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