For under-represented minorities in physics, successfully completing an undergraduate degree in physics can be a daunting and isolating task. The APS National Mentoring Community is dedicated towards helping students find the right support and mentorship, as Tushna Commissariat reports
2020 was a year of unexpected changes and challenges. Apart from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world, issues surrounding marginalized racial or ethnic groups, especially in the US, were brought to the forefront. The significant under-representation of minorities in physics is an issue for the community as a whole. The American Physical Society (APS) has a number of programmes geared towards inclusion, and to increase the recruitment and retention of Black/African American, Latinx, and Indigenous physicists.
For those minority students who have decided on physics as an undergrad – apart from the stresses of a difficult and demanding programme – they are often faced with a number of other barriers including isolation and a lack of representation and community support. With this in mind, the APS National Mentoring Community (NMC) was formed to increase the number of under-represented minority students who complete Bachelor’s degrees in physics.
“Essentially, the NMC was set up to provide mentoring relationships for students from backgrounds that are typically marginalized in physics. Right now, we specifically focus on undergraduate students of colour from the Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities,” says NMC programme manager Simone Hyater-Adams, who is also the APS education and diversity programmes manager. After receiving her BS in physics from Hampton University in the US, Hyater-Adams pursued graduate studies at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her graduate work included interdisciplinary research examining the connections between performance art and identity for Black physicists. While she was not a part of the NMC as an undergrad, she attended her first meeting as a graduate in 2017, when she was invited to give a talk.
“The idea is that this community can provide undergrad physics students with faculty mentors, hopefully at their local institutions, to support them through their degree,” she says. Mentors can also be from other institutions, from industry, and even other walks of life, as long as they have a background in physics. Mentees are encouraged to have more than one mentor, depending on their particular interests. “A local mentor will know the institution and will be able to provide guidance on how students can navigate in that specific context ,” says Hyater-Adams. “And then potentially other mentors might be able to support students in additional ways – either connect with them culturally, or perhaps they have a career path that these students are interested in. Ultimately, the goal of the programme is to retain and thereby increase the number of under-represented students who successfully complete physics Bachelor’s degrees.”
While the main goal of the NMC is to set up mentoring relationships, there are also some other key components. An essential one is the Bringing Emergency Aid to Mentees (BEAM) fund, which provides small monetary grants to mentees, to help them with unforeseen expenses that impede their ability to stay in school. BEAM serves as emergency financial assistance that mentees can apply for. “While there is a cap of around $1500 that they can apply for from the fund, a real benefit is how rapidly they can get some extra help,” explains Hyater-Adams.
“Applications undergo a very quick review, where we typically just ask ‘Are you a mentee? Do you have a mentor, and are they aware of this issue? Does this seem reasonable?’ Once approved, there is a very quick turnaround because it’s an emergency fund. Sometimes we have paid for tuition while in some other cases, mentees are in a situation where they do not have the resources to live off at that time,” she adds. Expenses cover many areas including food, medical costs, transportation, childcare and more.
Another key component of the NMC is its annual conference, which is organized in collaboration with the National Society for Black Physicists and the National Society for Hispanic Physicists. According to Hyater-Adams, the conference benefits the largest number of members, but she adds that “there’s many students who come to the conference who aren’t members of NMC, but then sign up after”. Each year, for three to four days, mentors and mentees gather for talks, panel discussions, workshops, careers fairs and visits to local institutions. The main purpose of the conference is to build and foster the community as a whole; allowing not only mentors and mentees to meet in an informal setting; but also, for students to meet peers from institutions across the US.
The 2020 conference, which took place in February at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, involved some 140 attendees. “Undergraduate-focused conferences are much needed – there’s opportunities for students to present as well as participate in sessions,” says Hyater-Adams. “For example, we offer training for mentors, including best practices on how to best support students. But the conferences also include graduate-focused offerings such as career workshops, industry talks or networking fairs, which we had at the last two conferences.”
The first plenary session of the 2020 conference was given by Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) physicist Corey Gray, who is a member of the Blackfoot tribe and the Siksika nation from southern Alberta, Canada. His talk, “A wrinkle in space–time: connecting gravitational waves and Albert Einstein with Blackfoot culture”, was a conference highlight for many.
“I’ve been involved with the NMC for a while now, so when they approached me to be a keynote speaker, I was delighted,” says Gray. “This was back in February 2020, before any of the lockdowns – I was there for two nights, and even got to visit the Kennedy Space Center as part of the conference.” The best part though, for Gray, was meeting all the other attendees. “I got to meet so many undergrads and had the chance to speak to many of them after my talk. Now, we’re friends on Instagram and Facebook. I also met other professionals and scientists like me… It’s cool when you get to network and meet people. I was really so honoured and appreciative to have that opportunity,” he adds.
“I think the students especially love the conference, because they are looking to build their community. There’s a lot of isolation with students of colour in physics, and the conference really shows them that they aren’t alone,” says Hyater-Adams. This sentiment is echoed by NMC mentee Alexander Vasquez, a physics student at Texas State University. He told APS News that the meeting “is the most valuable asset in the NMC in my opinion – I get to see other minority physics majors and know that I’m not alone”. His mentor, Texas State University physicist Alice Olmstead, agreed, adding that the conference is “so rich and has so many resources for my students to make connections that I can’t provide myself”.
Unsurprisingly, the 2021 NMC Conference will be held virtually this year, from February 18 to 21. Apart from all the usual offerings, the conference committee is encouraging more student-organized community-building sessions, as reported by APS News. According to Hyater-Adams, “these could be things like a virtual game night, a hobby chat, a murder mystery, or any other topic that you think will be beneficial for conference goers”.
As much of the world moved to a more virtual existence last year, plans were already under way for the NMC to create a Slack channel to facilitate more peer-mentoring among the undergrads. “The thing that I don’t think many people have considered as much when it comes to the structuring of this programme is the power dynamic. As an undergrad, reaching out and talking to faculty can be intimidating. In some cases, it may be easier for students to reach out to peers for advice – and perhaps that student might be able to foster a faculty connection,” says Hyater-Adams. The new NMC Slack workspace was set up at the end of last year, and is designed as a member resource hub, as well as a platform to host online events including the conference.
Today, the NMC is ramping up its recruitment for the programme, to get more mentors and mentees. “Part of that will be getting more pairs successfully matched, but also creating more structure for the programme, especially with our Slack workspace in place,” says Hyater-Adams. According to her, the NMC’s best success stories are those where mentees have felt truly championed by their mentors. “The most impactful mentoring relationships are those where a mentor will truly advocate for the mentee – they become that person who will look out for them, who believe in them, all the while providing them with the resources to succeed.”