Leslie Leinwand’s research lab on University of Colorado Boulder’s East Campus has more than two dozen researchers. Most are graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and some are undergraduate students.
It’s an international mix, with Italy, Greece, Puerto Rico, the United States and China represented among the lab’s benches.
“Diversity is important to science, but what does that really mean?” asks Leinwand, a distinguished professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and the chief scientific officer of the BioFrontiers Institute.
“To really answer scientific questions, you need to be able to approach them from different directions. Having a diverse research group means that you’re able to bring a broader range of experience and knowledge to your work.”
Two researchers from Leinwand’s lab, Carlos Vera and Kaylan Haizlip, participate in a newly formed student organization designed to inspire students from underrepresented backgrounds to become successful in academia.
The group, called CU Café (the group initially began meeting over coffee), offers a student-run seminar series that brings in minority scholars from other institutions to talk about their research and give their perspectives about succeeding in the academic environment.
“It’s small, but it’s powerful,” says Sarah McQuate, who was part of the initial effort to start the student-run organization. She is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Amy Palmer, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and BioFrontiers Institute faculty member.
“CU Café gives us a way to support the campus community while letting us do the research work we want to do.”
The diversity in our lab motivates people to talk more and work to understand each other better, because we’re coming from different countries and different research styles.”
That program’s goal is to increase diversity among future leaders in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields by providing mentorship, goal-setting and hands-on research experiences. The program has graduated more than a thousand new researchers.
Summers encouraged CU Café’s creation in its early stages and suggested a seminar series as a way of bringing new ideas to campus.
The CU Café seminar series was designed to bring different perspectives to CU-Boulder about research and the importance of creating diverse research teams. The group has already hosted a variety of speakers, covering a range of topics that appeal to researchers across the campus, including:
- Ahna Skop, professor of genetics, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Enrique De La Cruz, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University
- Gabriel Lopez, vice president of research and professor of biomedical engineering at the University of New Mexico
- Geronimo Villanueva, research professor, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
- Kalai Mathee, professor at Florida International University and director of the Global Health Consortium (scheduled for April 28)
What makes CU Café seminars unusual is that the speakers are asked to bring a researcher or mentee from their labs to lead an additional, less-formal, discussion about their work. CU Café sees this as a way to network with researchers from different academic institutions long after the events are over.
It also acts as a recruitment opportunity to attract these researchers to CU when they are looking for faculty positions later in their careers.
In the Leinwand lab, MCDB graduate student and CU Café member Carlos Vera says the lab’s work on cardiovascular disease was the initial attraction for him, but the diversity within the lab eased the transition from Puerto Rico to Boulder.
“The diversity in our lab motivates people to talk more and work to understand each other better, because we’re coming from different countries and different research styles,” he says.
“If we came from the same backgrounds, I think we would just assume we understood things in the same ways. Our different experiences make our conversations, and our work, a little bit richer.”
Vera and the other CU Café members hope to serve as a student-based consulting group for the university to help bring awareness of diversity issues through different campus activities and initiatives.
Follow CU Café and learn more about the group’s events on its blog at: https://cucafeseminar.wordpress.com.
Emilia Costales is communications manager at the BioFrontiers Institute.