Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Mentorship matters:

Increasing Diversity in Earth Sciences program nurtures undergraduates

Lynette de Silva Lynette de Silva, IDES Program Coordinator

Eduardo "Lalo" Francisco Guerrero grew up in Mexico with a rich landscape at his feet. Outside his window in Cuernavaca — south of Mexico City — he could see the sweeping rise of a volcano. One of his first memories was the magnitude 8.0 earthquake that shook the capital in 1985. But despite being surrounded by Mexico's vibrant geology, Guerrero never thought about turning his passion into a profession. In fact, he never knew he could become a geologist.

"If you were going into science, it was computer science, chemical engineering or something like that. But the physical sciences weren't presented as a viable option. I never met a geologist. I never talked with someone who had gone through that program," he says.

Guerrero's experience might not be that unique. A 2015 National Science Foundation report on women, minorities and persons with disabilities in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) showed that since 2000, the number of underrepresented minorities in physical sciences has been flat. "I think that geology and Earth sciences in general, unless you're lucky enough to be exposed to them, are often overlooked as professions. You might not even know you want to do it," Guerrero says.

Fortunately, Guerrero is helping to combat statistics, both individually as a Ph.D. student in geology at Oregon State University, and as the program assistant for the Increasing Diversity in Earth Sciences (IDES) program. Through this NSF-funded program, Guerrero has been able to provide undergraduates with a key ingredient that was missing from his own experience: mentorship.

While funding for the five-year program officially ended in 2015, its successes in nurturing future scientists are commendable. Upwards of 50 students participated in the program over its tenure. Many have continued on to graduate school, earned NASA fellowships, become teachers or coauthored papers. In a final evaluation report, students cited that IDES helped them expand opportunities, establish professional contacts, build self-confidence and improve employment prospects.

Lynette de Silva, the IDES program coordinator who worked with Guerrero, says mentorship was essential to the program's accomplishments, and something they took beyond transmission of information from professor to pupil. "Mentoring is more than providing academic information; it provides understanding through doing and seeing, on many levels. It builds on the successes the students have in the classroom and provides a bridge to the kinds of successes one has in the workforce," she says.

An academic home for diverse students

Launched in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, the NSF-supported effort recruited and retained undergraduate students in the Earth sciences from diverse backgrounds, while helping them engage in research. The program stands on the shoulders of a decades-long diversity effort within CEOAS, including a predecessor program, Native Americans in Marine and Space Sciences.

IDES enrollees were mostly transfer students from nearby community colleges, a program hallmark that created a steady pipeline of students. These students represented diversity groups from strictly ethnicity-based to non-traditional students returning to college.

"It's really trying to increase the likelihood of success in transfer students, and we particularly focused on non-traditional students," says Shan de Silva, IDES principal investigator. "IDES students were engaged for two full years, which was key to giving the participants an academic home within the university."

Building a culture of mentorship

The IDES program built mentorship early into the process. Every student was assigned a mentor — a faculty member or someone outside the university system who shepherded them through a research project, helped them develop applied skills and transition to the real world. The mentee-mentor pair would then meet regularly to devise a research project, whether documenting hotspots in seamounts or assessing biomass for fuel potential.

Students also had ample opportunities to build a culture of peer mentorship. New recruits participated in a two-week GIS workshop, summer field trips and monthly cohort meetings.

"We'd take them around Oregon and show them the coast and the Cascades, all while building geological observations and their passion for the Earth sciences," Shan de Silva says.

IDES participants did team-building activities like a ropes challenge course. Guerrero says that these kinds of activities, while lighthearted on the outside, are vital to retaining students and ensuring success as they build cohort identity."There's a motto I keep in my mind. The first thing is for students to feel safe, and if they feel safe, then they can have fun. And if they can have fun, then they are going to learn," he says.

A group effort

The IDES program's support structure went deeper than a single mentor or cohort experience. In many cases a whole lab group mentored a student, down to graduate students and post-docs. "They were part of a team, a team comprised of several national or world-renowned scientists, post-docs and graduate students, all contributing to a project and the success of the mentee," Lynette de Silva says.

As a result, mentees learned how their interests might translate to career choices. That was certainly the case for former IDES student Kristin Richardson. She came into the program with a 10-year teaching career already behind her, but she was eager to become a scientist. Her mentor, Rob Wheatcroft with the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, helped her do just that.

"He taught me many of the basic components of research such as how to review the relevant literature, how to frame questions and form hypotheses and how to write a proposal," Richardson says.

Richardson is now finishing a master's program at Oregon State, where she continues to work with Wheatcroft. Her project investigates linkages between forest harvest practices and increases in offshore sediment rates. Richardson recently accepted a job as a hydrologist on the Lolo National Forest in Montana. Now, she proudly calls herself a scientist.

Mentors also benefit from the relationship, because they earn a productive research assistant. For Joe Stoner, a marine geologist and paleomagnetist, mentoring an IDES physics student led to new instruments that enhanced his sediment core analysis. "He did most of the work — the programming, the building. And now we have an instrument that is probably a third of the cost of what's on the market," Stoner says.

What's next

As the program sunsets, coordinators and supporters are looking at what the next iteration of IDES might be. Bob Duncan, a co-PI of the project, says the mentorship factor has been so successful in building research interest that he sees potential at the university level.

"I've come to the point of view that this kind of program is what every student at OSU needs," he says.

The OSU STEM Leaders program has adopted many of the core elements of the IDES program, including partnering with community colleges, focusing on diversity and creating mentored research experiences.

"The program has effectively been cloned at the institutional level. We see this as a major success of the IDES program," Shan de Silva says.

For Guerrero, the Ph.D. student who has helped mentor students in a way he never experienced, the impact of IDES will usher in new opportunities. "I think bringing underrepresented minorities into the sciences … you can't quantify the success of it right away," he says. "It can seem challenging because you don't see an immediate return on the investment. But in 15 or 20 years, when things within an entire community have changed, you can look back on a program like IDES and realize its importance."


See more Feature Stories