BY MONICA KORTSHA
There’s a good chance you would recognize Jackson School of Geosciences alumnus Tim Shin even if you’ve never met him. That’s because Shin’s face is on the cover of an undergraduate brochure that the school used for years to recruit students.
On the brochure, Shin is smiling as he looks up from a stack of papers. His undergraduate adviser, Department of Geological Sciences Associate Professor Elizabeth Catlos, is pictured beside him, leaning over his shoulder. With his face front and center on that brochure, Shin represents the school.
But the truth is that he is far from representative of the school. That’s because Shin is Black, and, put simply, most people in the Jackson School — and in the geosciences as a whole — are white.
When Shin started his master’s program at the Jackson School, he was the only Black graduate student. In fall 2020, some 10 years after he graduated, the count has increased by just a single student. Shin says he has many positive memories of his time at the Jackson School, but like other minority students who have come forward in recent months, those memories are peppered with stories that gave Shin the impression he was an outsider, or, even worse, did not belong.
There were comments from professors like “you’re surprisingly well spoken” or “I guess it’s better to be lucky than smart.” There was the simple fact that not a single faculty member looked like him. There was the realization that most of his white classmates grew up camping — a seemingly foundational skill in a school that stresses field work, and a skill that Shin had virtually no experience with.
Now years into a successful geosciences career, Shin has seen these types of issues throughout the industry. He’s certain most are not intentional.
But he says he can’t help but think that his alma mater, with its lofty position in the geosciences, should be leading the charge for equity and inclusion.
“The Jackson School is doing a lot better and has done a lot better than many similar institutions, but it’s got a lot left to do,” Shin said.
Many alumni and those within the school agree. The Jackson School has been working hard for years to address the lack of diversity within the school and the geosciences as a whole, and to make the environment more welcoming to students from underrepresented groups. Some of the efforts are well known, others are not.
You may have heard of GeoFORCE, the Jackson School’s award-winning program that teaches geosciences to high school students from underserved communities in Houston and southwest Texas. There are also a number of other programs that support students as they enter college, go on to graduate school, and beyond.
Still, the truth is that all these efforts have moved the needle very little. Much of the progress has been in increasing gender diversity; women now make up 50% of the school’s assistant professors and 43% of all students.
But in the spring of 2020, the latest term for which there is complete demographics information, the Jackson School student body contained one Black graduate student and no Black undergraduates. The Hispanic representation was 7% for graduates (exclusive of international students) and 14% for undergraduates, significantly below the almost 53% that make up the overall population in Texas public schools.
There has been a distinct uptick in interest of the school’s diversity efforts since the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Alumni and graduate student groups have sent messages to Jackson School leadership. And more than two dozen members of the Jackson School community — students, faculty members and staff members — came together for a #ShutDownSTEM event on June 10 to reflect on racism in the geosciences and discuss solutions for improving diversity, particularly for Black students, in the Jackson School.
At the same time, the Jackson School, led by Dean Claudia Mora, has continued the process of evaluating its diversity programs and instituting more training for faculty and staff members. The school is also redoubling its effort to spread the word about diversity and inclusion efforts at the school and the actions it is taking to develop and support geoscientists from underrepresented groups at every level.
The problem is longstanding and entrenched. But the fact that people throughout the Jackson School community have expressed interest in being part of the conversation now is a big step to doctoral student Kiara Gomez, who has been a member of the Jackson School’s diversity and inclusion committee since 2016 and recently co-founded a Jackson School chapter of GeoLatinas, an international organization for Latinas in geosciences.
“It can be hard for people [who aren’t from underrepresented groups] to understand, and for things to feel a bit overwhelming if they have been hanging out on the sidelines,” she said. “Talking more about diversity is a central thing. I don’t want it to stop.”
It’s the type of energy, said Mora, which can help move the needle as long as it’s ongoing, consistent and constructive.
“The Jackson School has been doing things, and is doing things, and will do things [to address diversity and inclusion],” Mora said. “We have a lot of interest and we can take advantage of this time to improve things markedly.”
At every degree level, the geosciences are among the least racially diverse of all the STEM disciplines, according to data on degrees earned at U.S. universities collected by the National Science Foundation.
In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, only 2.2% of Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences bachelor’s degrees — a total of 155 degrees — went to Black students, and that percentage has remained flat over the previous 10 years. In comparison, Hispanic students earned 9.1% of Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences bachelors in 2016, an increase from 3.7% earned in 2006. The trends are similar for master’s degrees. Black students never break 2.6%; Hispanic students went from 3.6% in 2006 to 6.3% in 2016.
At the level of the doctoral degree — the de facto requirement for academic positions in geosciences — the percentage of underrepresented minorities earning degrees has hardly budged in 40 years. And for Black geoscientists, it hasn’t changed at all.
Jackson School alumni Rachel Bernard, who is Black, and Emily Cooperdock compiled the Ph.D. data for a 2018 study in Nature Geosciences. They found that in 2016, Black geoscientists earned 1% of Ph.D.s — the same percentage earned by all Black geoscientists from 1973 to 2016. And while the number of Hispanic geoscientists earning Ph.D.s has increased — in 2016 they earned 5% of degrees, up from 2.8% over the entire 40-year period — that increase reflects a growing Hispanic population in the United States in general.
When put in terms of total doctoral degrees over the past 40 years, the chasm between Black and Hispanic geoscientists and white geoscientists is stark: 860 vs. 19,570.
At the Jackson School, the diversity of both staff and non-international students reflects these larger trends.
Black students have made up about 2% of the undergraduate student body on average during the past decade. Hispanic students made up 16.2% of undergraduates on average over the same period — a value that’s lower than the 21.7% of Hispanic students that made up UT’s student population in 2019.
For graduate students, the number of Black students has never reached above two at any given time during the past decade, while Hispanic students make up 6.2% of graduate students on average.
The Jackson School faculty similarly lacks diversity, with 14% of faculty members of Asian descent, but only one faculty member from underrepresented groups, Dean Mora, who is Latina. The absence of educators who are Black or Hispanic means that students from these groups have to look elsewhere for role models whose presence demonstrates that a career in geosciences is possible for them. Shin and fellow alumnus Stanley Stackhouse said it was conferences that first gave them a glimpse of what might be possible for them as Black geoscientists.
“Once you go to some of the national conventions, you really are exposed to a more diverse community, including Black geoscientists who are actually in positions that you’re trying to achieve,” Stackhouse said.
For Shin, meeting Black faculty members and others who held high positions in the geosciences as an undergraduate student at his first Geological Society of America meeting was eye opening.
“It was huge for me,” Shin said. “A huge boost.”
Bernard, now a visiting assistant professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts, is experiencing this from the other side.
“A lot of students have been approaching me,” Bernard said. “Just by being there, I’ve had several — all [white] women and women of color — approach me and just want to talk. And they’ve told me it was because I was the only woman of color in the department.”
Professors and professionals can have a big influence on developing the next generation. But the fact remains that geoscientists from underrepresented groups make up a small community.
Bernard used the NSF data to determine where she ranked among other Black women who had earned Ph.D.s in geosciences during the past 40 years. She found that as a 2018 graduate, she is about the 30th Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in the earth sciences.
As that number illustrates, there is no way to improve the diversity of the geosciences community without growing the diversity of geosciences students who can then go on to careers in academia or industry, and help serve as role models to others along the way.
This approach is often characterized as increasing the flow into a “pipeline.” But research shows that the pipeline has a number of leaky points, places where students exit geosciences.One strategy is not enough to make meaningful change. That’s why the Jackson School has a number of different programs that seek to support students from underrepresented groups at every step of the way, said Samuel Moore, the Jackson School’s director of outreach and diversity.
“We’re working on having allies here for the students of color,” he said.
The main focus remains at the start of the pipeline. Outreach programs such as GeoFORCE, Geoscience Ambassadors and OnRamps target students who have little to no geosciences education. Their goal is not just to spread awareness about the geosciences — but to help students envision themselves as geoscientists.
Since 2005, GeoFORCE has been introducing Texas high school students from underserved communities to the geosciences by taking them on field experiences, called academies, each summer with all travel expenses paid.
Modeled after a similar program at Fort Valley State University, a historically Black college in Georgia, GeoFORCE accepts about 84 eighth grade students into the program each year, with about 60% of students identifying as Hispanic and about 15% as Black.
The students then spend about a week each summer for the next four years learning about geosciences in the field. The program also provides support to students as they apply to college and graduate school.
Program coordinator Dana Thomas guides GeoFORCE students through the transition from high school to college through the GeoSTEM Bridge Program. She said that year after year she receives feedback from students about the transformative effects of GeoFORCE. She has heard from students who directly credit the program with their decision to study STEM, and from first-generation college students who cite the support and encouragement of GeoFORCE as essential to their college success.
So far, 100% of GeoFORCE participants have graduated from high school, with about 90% making it through at least their second year in college, and 44% of currently enrolled students studying a STEM field. The program has also received the highest honor for STEM education from the U.S. government. In 2015, Moore and Doug Ratcliff, the founder and former director of the program, travelled to Washington, D.C., to accept the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, meeting with President Barack Obama during the visit.
As of August 2019, GeoFORCE alumni had earned 65 bachelor’s degrees and 11 master’s degrees in geoscience, with about 60% of those degrees earned by underrepresented minorities. However, in comparison to the 550 degrees earned by GeoFORCE alumni thus far, those in geosciences make up only about 14%.
GeoFORCE is working to boost those numbers in part by revamping the 12th grade field academy experience based on results from a four-year NSF-sponsored study led by Kathy Ellins, the program director for geoscience education research. Starting in 2018, the academies have shifted from lectures by a single “sage on a stage,” as Ellins puts it, to an emphasis on challenge-based activities led by a diverse instructional team that includes graduate and undergraduate students from similar racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds as the students.
Leah Turner, who became the program director for GeoFORCE in December 2018, said that another aspect of revamping the curriculum involves learning more about GeoFORCE students’ values, goals and perceptions of success — and then revising the curriculum to more intentionally connect geosciences to these points.
She also plans on increasing student exposure to geoscience careers by connecting students with professional mentors who can talk about what their day-to-day lives as geoscientists are like. The goal is to make a career in geosciences stand out among other career tracks that students encounter more frequently.
“Some students are like, ‘This is great, but what does this life look like?’” Turner said. “So our professional mentors on these field experiences have to be as powerful as the teachers they see every day, as the nurses they visit … they have to demystify some of the geoscience related careers.”
They also have to address geosciences’ reputation as a field for outdoorsy, white men — a character that Shin jokingly calls the “geo bro” — which is something that can give pause to potential students who don’t fit that mold.
A program led by Jackson School Professor Julia Clarke that emphasizes students from diverse backgrounds is directly countering that stereotype.
Founded in 2018, the Geoscience Ambassadors gives students a platform to tell the story of how they found the geosciences and to research community perspectives. Students then use this work to reach others in their community.
“It enables students to connect with influencers in a community and come up with diverse approaches to sharing their path to the geosciences and empowers them to design new engagement opportunities in partnership with these communities,” Clarke said.
The goal is for each student to create inroads to the geosciences by sharing their “pathway stories” at community events.
To date, more than 1,500 participants have been engaged in ambassador-designed programs in a wide variety of contexts, including schools, churches, homes, military and professional networks and social groups. However, Clarke said that the survival of the program depends on securing a long-term funding source. A seed grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute got the program started. But keeping it going will require additional funds. In the meantime, the stories of the Geoscience Ambassadors are being mobilized for broader impact as a collection of short, autobiographical videos available to teachers and other influencers via the Geoscience Ambassadors’ website.
The Geoscience Ambassadors is a relatively small program. But for the past six years, the Jackson School has been bringing geosciences to thousands of high school students across Texas by partnering with high school teachers to teach OnRamps Earth Wind and Fire: Introduction to Geoscience.
The course is part of UT’s OnRamps program, which provides curriculum and teacher training in 13 college-level courses. This spring, the introductory UT geoscience course was taught to more than 1,200 high school students —mostly seniors but also some juniors — in about 70 schools across Texas. Most of the students who took the course belong to an underrepresented group; 57% identify as Hispanic and 13% as Black — which nearly mirrors the state’s overall public school student population.
“For most students, this is the first and only geosciences and environmental class they get in high school,” said Associate Professor Joel Johnson, who teaches GEO 302E, the undergraduate course that the OnRamps class is modeled after.
“That opens the door, or potentially does, to studying it in college. You study what you know, and this class builds a familiarity with earth sciences.”
In addition to teaching geosciences, the course provides a preview of the college experience. Students upload their assignments online so UT graders can review them. The students can also opt to have their grade counted as college credit.
Johnson and Alison Mote, the course manager and a Jackson School alumna, are working to further that college connection by finding opportunities for Jackson School undergraduates to talk to high school classes.
“We reach an audience that is far more diverse than the geosciences community, and making the connections more explicit is part of our goal,” Johnson said.
Helping students from underrepresented groups see themselves as geoscientists is an important start. But students often run into barriers when entering the college system — from not being able to afford tuition, to weak science and math skills, to not knowing how to navigate a complex academic system.
The GeoSTEM Bridge Program helps 12th grade students who completed the GeoFORCE program overcome these barriers by supporting them as they navigate the transition from high school to college. That includes help finding scholarships, completing applications and preparing for rigorous college courses with a Math and Science Institute taught by UT professors, said Thomas.
In 2020, GeoFORCE and the Office of Broader Impacts in Geosciences Research added a new program that focuses on supporting undergraduate and recently graduated students. Called GeoVISION, the program is a research traineeship that connects GeoFORCE alumni and other students from underrepresented groups with Jackson School researchers. This year, 23 students took part, with about half working one-on one with Jackson School scientists on personal research projects.
All GeoVISION students took part in virtual training sessions and skill-building sessions, with research scientist Gail Christeson teaching the basics of the programming language Python, Associate Professor Michael Pyrcz teaching geostatistics, and Assistant Professor Timothy Goudge teaching remote sensing.
A primary goal of the GeoVISION program is to introduce GeoFORCE alumni to the research environment at the Jackson School and encourage them to pursue their research by earning a graduate degree from the school. Two other programs do the same but reach into a broader pool of students: The EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Geosciences Education) program and a student research partnership with Fort Valley State University, the same historically Black college that runs the program that GeoFORCE was modeled after. All of these programs help build connections between participants so that students can belong to a group even before they begin their degree programs.
The EDGE program was started in 2018 as a means to introduce prospective graduate students from underrepresented groups to the Jackson School community. The two-day program covers the costs of travel, lodging and meals. Students meet with faculty members and research scientists, tour facilities and attend information sessions about the graduate program. The Jackson School’s two current Black graduate students were recruited through EDGE.
The Fort Valley State research collaboration, a program founded in 2013, lets students experience research at the Jackson School firsthand. The program brings two undergraduate students from Fort Valley State to the Jackson School each summer to take part in research opportunities across the school’s three research units and the Texas Advanced Computing Center.
The program grew from a dual-degree partnership between UT and Fort Valley State that ran from 2005 to 2015. The program enabled Fort Valley State students to earn a STEM degree from Fort Valley State in three years and then transfer to the Jackson School or Cockrell School of Engineering to earn a geosciences or engineering degree in two. The degree program gradually shifted to research collaboration as a means to manage costs while still getting undergraduate students involved with geosciences research and potentially attracting them to graduate school, Moore said.
During the first 10 years of the dual-degree program, six students earned bachelor’s degrees from the Jackson School — including Stackhouse, who also went on to earn a master’s.
Currently, Moore and Clarke are working together to secure funding to restart dual-degree opportunities while expanding the summer research experience. In a similar vein as the Fort Valley State program, Associate Dean Christopher Bell and lecturer Mary Poteet are working to recruit Austin Community College (ACC) students as transfer students to the Jackson School through shared student outings. The goal is to have ACC students transfer after two years and come into the school with a student network already established. In 2019, Bell led a student outing to the Jackson School’s White
Family Student Learning Center, where students found and identified fossils across the 266-acre property. One former ACC geoscience student has successfully transferred to the Jackson School due to the partnership. However, external funding is required to establish the effort as a permanent program.
Poteet and Bell are applying for grants to fund it. Once a student is enrolled in the Jackson School, funds from a number of endowments help make education more affordable.
In July 2020, Kristen Tucek, the Jackson School’s associate director for alumni and corporate relations, hosted a virtual meeting with a handful of alumni who were interested in learning more about diversity and inclusion at the Jackson School.
An exchange between Shin and fellow alumnus Ted Cross provided a poignant example of how a person’s race may affect how that person is treated in subtle, yet meaningful ways.
Cross, who is white, recalled professors and later managers telling him that he reminded them of younger versions of themselves. Shin never heard those words, despite having many of the same professors, being in the same classes and graduating with a Bachelor of Science the same year that Cross did. It’s difficult to pin down whether race was the reason. But, combined with years of other experiences in which Shin was treated differently — both inside and outside of the Jackson School — it raises the question.
Starting this summer on social media, numerous Black scientists used the hashtag #BlackinSTEM to share their own experiences of being treated differently, and the toll it can take on feeling welcome in a scientific community in which they are a minority.
Two groups at the Jackson School are working to combat that outsider experience by creating a more inclusive community within the school. One group, GEN (Geoscience Empowerment Network), is doing that by helping members build a broader understanding of diversity and inclusion issues in geosciences, and advocating for ways to bring more diverse geoscientists to the Jackson School. The other group, GeoLatinas, is creating a space for Latinas and others to build community, network and support with one another.
Professor Ginny Catania founded GEN in 2018 with an initial focus on professional development and community building for women and racial minorities across all groups in the Jackson School. Since this summer, GEN has received a jolt of new energy, with members discussing ways to promote inclusivity across the school.
Plans include a peer mentorship program for graduate students, diversity and inclusion workshops, a reading and discussion group about diversity in STEM, targeted policy changes, and advocating for more diverse speakers at the Jackson School’s DeFord lecture series.
Whereas GEN is a Jackson School-specific group, GeoLatinas is a global organization with chapters in eight countries. In spring 2020, Gomez and fellow doctoral student Estefania Salgado Jauregui founded a chapter at the Jackson School.
They had one in-person meeting before COVID-19 turned all organizing virtual.
Nevertheless, Gomez and Salgado Jauregui have big plans for recruitment and community building for the fall — from outings to Latin American museums, talks from Latina leaders in geosciences, and organizing holiday activities.
The organization centers on Latina students, but everyone is welcome to join. Gomez said her goal is to build connections within GeoLatinas but also create a larger network among other Jackson School groups — including GEN, the Graduate School Executive Committee and Geosciences Leadership Organization for Women.
“This is how we’re going to grow and contribute to the mission of the Jackson School,” said Gomez. “The No. 1 thing is having diversity as a central aspect of the overall academic realm and as a long-term thing.
Taken in total, the programs and efforts being made at the Jackson School do show a clear commitment to diversity, said Mora, who pointed to herself as a living example.
“The Jackson School selected a dean who had spent the previous 12 years outside of academia (at Los Alamos National Laboratory) and who is a Latina,” said Mora, whose career also included 18 years as a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“That’s not the way most places would have gone about it.”
Turning that commitment into better results is going to take improvement across the board and stepped up coordination and communication. Many of the Jackson School’s programs are grassroots efforts and have sprung up separately from one another, creating a situation in which it is difficult for those not directly involved with diversity programs to know what’s going on.
Along with refining current programs, the Jackson School is figuring out clear ways that the alumni can plug in and assist with the effort. As the incoming president of the Jackson School’s Friends and Alumni Network, Stackhouse said that one of his key priorities is advancing geosciences outreach, especially in the Houston area. Shin is doing related work as a member of the Geological Society of America’s diversity committee, advocating for scholarships that bring geosciences students from underrepresented groups to the society’s annual meeting.
They both said that they think one of the biggest ways the school could help increase underrepresented students is by hiring faculty members from these same groups.
“It’s hard to tell people that you’re diverse, and you’re bringing diverse students in, and the student starts looking and says, ‘There’s nobody like me that teaches there,’” Stackhouse said.
Given the breadth and depth of the problem, Mora said, the energy and interest of alumni is essential. She summed it up when talking with a group of concerned alumni.
“Please don’t just tell us what to do. Find something that you can do, and help us do that,” she said. “We are glad you’re listening, and yes, it’s painful. But join us, and help us, and take measurable steps toward progress.”
Being able to afford an education is an obstacle for many students. Once a student has finished an undergraduate degree and been admitted as a graduate student at the Jackson School of Geosciences, the obstacle is largely overcome. The school provides full funding packages for the vast majority of its graduate students. The exceptions are students with outside funding sources — such as grants or company funds — and students enrolled in the multidisciplinary Energy and Earth Resources program. Funding includes full tuition, health insurance and a stipend for living expenses.
The situation is trickier for undergraduates. When students apply, they are automatically considered for scholarships that they may qualify for based on a number of factors. In all cases, the scholarship amounts vary each year depending on the funds available in endowment accounts.
The Jackson School has 97 student endowments that help students pay for education. About 14% of these endowments are working to increase student diversity by providing funds specifically to students who are first-generation college students or GeoFORCE alumni. (Due to legal reasons, donor designations cannot take race or ethnicity into account.)
The vast majority of endowed funds provide funding for students across the school: All Jackson School students with at least a 3.5 GPA receive a scholarship starting after their first semester, and those with financial need receive an additional scholarship.
The school’s student endowments also fund recruitment scholarships. For the past three years, two prospective undergraduates have been offered a $10,000 recruitment scholarship. For these scholarships, diversity is taken into account.
However, the endowments are not sufficient to guarantee these top students a similar level of funding for the rest of their undergraduate studies. In some cases, this situation has led to recruited students leaving the school due to financial hardship, said Bell, who added that his top fundraising priority is creating an endowment specifically for extending the recruitment scholarships to a full four years.
Even as the Jackson School continues raising funds to support students, The University of Texas at Austin’s new Texas Advance Commitment policy is helping make a college education possible for people who would not otherwise be able to afford it. The policy, which went into effect this fall, covers tuition for undergraduate students from Texas families making less than $65,000 a year and provides support for students from Texas families making less than $125,000 a year.