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Matt Gebbie with students in his lab
October 17, 2022

In CBE, diversity, equity and inclusion is a community effort that’s paying off

Written By: Jason Daley

At the beginning of each group meeting, the members of Conway Assistant Professor Matt Gebbie’s lab pause for a short researcher highlight to discuss a notable underrepresented or minority researcher who helped shape chemical engineering, chemistry or broader science, placing their portrait on the wall.

The gallery includes Walter Hawkins, the first black researcher at Bell Labs, who created innovations in plastics and telecommunications; the first black female astronaut Mae Jemison, a Stanford chemical engineering graduate; and Mildred Cohn, a biochemist who illuminated many enzyme reactions, among many others.

The history lessons are one of the many ways the lab puts diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at the center of its culture; in fact, since its beginnings just two years ago, the Gebbie lab has been built from the ground up with DEI as one of its core values. The lab is composed of graduate students from many different backgrounds, and getting to know and understand each other’s perspective, they believe, leads to better working conditions and a better lab environment.

PhD students Hrishikesh Tupkar and Elvis Umaña serve as the lab’s diversity officers, promoting DEI activities in the lab. They set up the history lessons as well as group lunches every few weeks for the students to get to know one another. The team also celebrates heritage and history month events, and encourages discussions on diversity topics. But Tupkar says their role is deeper than just event planning.

“We want to make sure that everyone feels welcome and comfortable,” he says. “We are the people that others in the lab can talk to if they do see any issues or want any positive changes in the lab to promote equity and diversity.”

It’s not surprising that DEI initiatives are at the core of Gebbie’s lab. During his first few months as a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Gebbie was invited to attend a meeting of a group called Graduate Students for Diversity in Science, which addressed DEI issues. He became active in the group, most importantly participating in a program that coordinated with local public primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) to host students for a two-day visit. That enabled them to learn about the diverse paths into graduate school and make them feel welcome in research. He later led the organization and co-launched a similar group as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, the Diverse Perspectives Seminar Series.

“That was something I just found very energizing for me. It was an awesome experience and let me learn much more about people who had overcome barriers to get into graduate education,” he says. “I was able to hear and learn from a lot of different people’s backgrounds and experiences. I remain passionate about making sure that anybody feels like they can consider research as a career.”

In his own lab, Gebbie thinks focusing on diversity has made his research group stronger. “If our pool of people looks different from the broader community, then clearly we are missing a lot of talent,” he says.

Gebbie’s isn’t the only CBE lab focusing on diversity. In fact, it’s been a community effort. The department has taken a hard look at its diversity, particularly the underrepresentation of women. So it created a DEI committee, spearheaded by Professors John Yin and Victor Zavala and has taken tangible steps towards recruitment of more diverse faculty and graduate students. It has also raised awareness of DEI issues and provided resources and guidance for labs on how to improve diversity and inclusion, including the suggestion of appointing DEI officers, which many labs have adopted.

The Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Organization (ChEGS), currently co-led by Ryan Cashen, a PhD student in Gebbie’s lab, has also collaborated with the departmental DEI committee to organize get togethers, international potlucks and opportunities for social interaction between students and faculty. The department has also created a Slack account for graduate students and faculty, including channels to discuss diversity and celebrate multicultural events.

“Things have improved significantly,” Zavala says. “I think in the past these issues were kind of an afterthought. And now you feel they are present in every discussion, and people are thinking how they can improve things. But we still have a lot to do.”

Beichen Liu, a female PhD student in the Gebbie Lab, says these kinds of initiatives make an impact. “I think these efforts do help in increasing the different kinds of people that we encounter in science,” she says. “And that increases the number of perspectives that can add to the academic body of work.”

Gebbie lab member Umaña was introduced to research when he attended a virtual REU program at UW-Madison in summer 2020. He liked the diversity of the students attending the program and was also impressed by the way the department used discussions to process the Black Lives Matters protests going at the time.

Now, Umaña is happy to continue those discussions in a meaningful way as a student, lab diversity officer, and ChEGS social chair. His goal, and the goal of everyone in the lab, is to nurture an environment where students can thrive. “It can be difficult as a graduate student to have a welcome feeling, even when people aren’t discriminating against you,” he says. “You feel like an outsider if there aren’t others who share the same cultural background. So being able to provide a comfortable space for people to pursue something they’re passionate about really feels like it’s helping them achieve their goals.”

Top photo caption: (From left to right) Assistant Professor Matt Gebbie, graduate students Beichen Liu, Hrishikesh Tupkar, Elvis Umaña and other lab members are working to build a welcoming environment where everyone can do their best work.