As appearing in | May, 2020 | By

Graduate student advocates for success of underrepresented groups in science

Colorado State University graduate student Josué Andrés Rodríguez-Ramos almost put his Ph.D. degree on hold to return home to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

Rodríguez-Ramos could not reach his family for a few days, so, worried for their safety, he started making arrangements with his advisor and department for a leave of absence. When he finally spoke with his family, a discussion with his mother convinced Rodríguez-Ramos to stay in the continental U.S. and finish his degree. She urged him not to quit after having achieved so much.

He agreed to stay in Fort Collins. This spring, the CSU Graduate School awarded Rodríguez-Ramos the Advancing Education Scholarship, honoring  the legacy and memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., in part because of his service to the campus community and the greater Fort Collins area, displaying great dedication to education and inclusion.

This scholarship is presented every year to a CSU graduate student and provides support for one academic year.

Advancing education

Rodríguez-Ramos, who is completing the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology this month, first discovered a passion for teaching while working as a graduate teaching assistant for a microbiology course for undergraduate students.

“It was one of the most enriching and significant experiences I have ever had,” Rodríguez-Ramos said. “It made me realize the influence that I could have in a student’s learning experience.”

This teaching experience motivated Rodríguez-Ramos to pursue ways to promote STEM inclusion and diversity in the community. His advisor Kelly Wrighton helped Rodríguez-Ramos build connections in the community. One introduction led to another and another.

“It’s a domino effect from the smallest thing,” said Rodríguez-Ramos. “People want to help.”

Rodríguez-Ramos worked with members of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences Committee for Inclusion and Diversity and the Poudre Public Library District to include K-12 students in the Martin Luther King, Jr. March in January 2020. After the march, Rodríguez-Ramos and other researchers had lunch with the students and described how they became involved in research. They hoped that this experience would help students to feel that they too could succeed in science.

There is a pressing need for such mentorship. In the United States, Latinx earned about 8% of all degrees and certificates awarded in STEM fields despite making up 16% of the population 10 years ago.

“It is really important for students that are Latino and Hispanic to see that they can make it in higher education,” said Rodríguez-Ramos, “If you see someone that works in academia or works in the government job that you want, those are things that not a lot of people have. Being able to have mentors like that is really important in how students grow.”

Rodríguez-Ramos first built a connection with the Poudre River Public Library District when helping to host a summer program about astrophysics called IMAGINATES. This program is bilingual, one week long, free, and available for K-12 students from low-income, underrepresented families.

“Students that would otherwise not be exposed to these situations are suddenly completely immersed in them,” said Rodríguez-Ramos, “and they’re like, maybe I can do that, maybe I can study space.”

Research mentoring

Rodríguez-Ramos conducts research on how viruses mediate greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to global climate change. Rodríguez-Ramos pointed out that places like where he grew up in Puerto Rico can suffer disproportionately from climate change outcomes.

Rodríguez-Ramos started participating in research as an undergraduate when he asked a friend if he could tag along to a research lab meeting. Rodríguez-Ramos developed lasting relationships with the people in that lab group.

“When I was an undergrad in Puerto Rico, my mentor was a master’s student,” Rodríguez-Ramos said. “We were friends. That helped me understand that he was a person and I could be that person too.”

Rodríguez-Ramos appreciates the mentors that have provided support and encouragement throughout his life, including his family, high school teachers, undergraduate research group and current collaborators.

“I have benefited from mentors that have shaped both my mind and desire for success in ways that I will never be able to repay,” said Rodríguez-Ramos, “and it is now my turn to be that type of mentor for others.”

Acting as a mentor himself at CSU, Rodríguez-Ramos was a judge at the MURALS – Multicultural Undergraduate Research and Leadership Symposium – last year and plans to volunteer in the future. As a graduate student evaluator, Rodríguez-Ramos gave feedback to undergraduates of color on their research presentations.

Promoting inclusion and diversity

The good news is that enrollment of Latinx students at U.S. colleges has increased rapidly in the last decade. Unfortunately, the gap is still high between the proportions of Latinx and white adults holding degrees. Rodríguez-Ramos has advice for decreasing that gap.

“Reaching out to people that you wouldn’t normally is super important in trying to shift the structure of your student community,” said Rodríguez-Ramos. “Expand your horizons.”

The responsibility to mentor underrepresented groups can fall heavily on faculty from such groups, and traditionally marginalized groups bear the primary responsibility for creating a diverse and inclusive culture in academia.

“Everyone has that responsibility to be appreciative, open, and inclusive to promote diversity and equitability between human beings,” said Rodríguez-Ramos, “Don’t forget how important you are. Every single person has an impact.”