Engaging underrepresented students to create diversity in agriculture and life science fields represents a pressing challenge for the scientific community.

A woman, Dr. Adela Chavez , works with a male student, an example of the Diversity in Entomology program.
Adela Oliva Chavez, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Research entomologist, (left) is one of more than a dozen Texas A&M University faculty who will act as mentors in the Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates Diversity in Entomology project starting next summer. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Diversity in Entomology, also known as Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates, is a project of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Entomology. The project’s aim is to address recruitment and support deficiencies for underrepresented students beginning in Summer semester 2022. Recruitment of its first cohort is underway now.

The goal of this project is to provide top-tier research experiences that improve students’ problem-solving abilities, and critical and creative thinking and communications skills to prepare them for competitive graduate programs and/or jobs within agriculture and natural resources fields.

The project focuses on mentoring students for success in diverse work environments and providing a support network designed to bolster their success beyond the project.

Opening doors to diversity in science

Texas A&M entomology professors Julio Bernal, Ph.D., and Raul Medina, Ph.D., both in the Department of Entomology, and Hector Ramos, Ph.D., educational psychology professor in the Texas A&M College of Education and Human Development, all in Bryan-College Station, are spearheading the project.

Together with a dozen other faculty mentors, they bring experience in research, mentorship of underrepresented students and creative education. They will use their expertise to provide tailored, hands-on research opportunities for the students.

“We believe that diverse perspectives in scientific fields leads to better solutions for challenges we face, whether big or small, local or global, and that this project will represent a transformational opportunity for both the students and the scientific community at large,” Bernal said. “We want to provide inspiration and motivation that propels them throughout their educational and professional careers and life.”

The project is supported by U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant funding for five years. It is specifically directed at undergraduate students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HBCUs, and Hispanic Serving Institutions, HSIs. Among these are Prairie View A&M University, Texas Southern University, Texas A&M University-Kingsville and University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Students from those universities can apply by submitting their most recent academic transcript, two letters of recommendation, a brief resume and an essay about their interest in science and other project-relevant topics. A web portal is available with detailed information about the project, including an application tool. The deadline to apply will be Feb. 1.

Engaging and encouraging underrepresented students

Bernal, Medina and Ramos believe the REEU project could shape science and academia in generational ways. But change starts with the recruitment of students who can become leaders and catalysts to increase underrepresented groups’ access and success in the sciences.  

Medina said less than 2% of full-time agricultural professors in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic. The number of American-born underrepresented scientists is even lower in some agricultural fields.

A valuable part of this project will utilize community-building activities to provide a sense of belonging that will allow participants to develop tools they can use to chart a path within competitive fields. Building trust, connectivity and open dialogue between students and their mentors will be important to meeting each student’s needs.

This focus on each student’s view of themselves, their studies and their work, as well as the world outside them and the people they come in contact with, is an aspect Medina said is paramount because scientific fields and academia can present both internal and external obstacles in many forms.

Creating an environment for success

Bernal, Medina and Ramos recognize the project’s potential to radically change the scientific community from technology and patent creation to research and academia.

Ramos said it will require molding an environment for success.

Interviews and pre-coaching sessions will be essential for finding students’ strengths, matching them with the right mentor, and developing components within the project to maximize their experience, he said.

Ramos said ideal candidates will have a desire for self-improvement and recognize the project’s potential as a transformational experience. By focusing on the individual and helping them develop goals and a vision for their future, Bernal, Medina and Ramos believe the project will have a cascading effect within the scientific community.

“The first cohort, including the mentoring faculty, is the seed from which this project can grow,” Ramos said. “We are very excited about what this opportunity represents for underrepresented students, for the universities, for academia and the scientific community, and for the world these future scientists will influence.”

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