PSD climate grants foster belonging while socially distanced

April 13, 2021
By Maureen McMahon

PSD members found creative ways to impact climate in the Division and further values of equity, diversity, and inclusion

Last winter, the former University of Chicago Physical Sciences Division Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Director, Neli Fanning, had a simple idea: invite all members to envision their efforts through the lens of inclusion, then ask them to identify an aim to advance diversity and positively impact climate in the PSD. The Division would make up to $2,000 in funding available to support the work through the Inclusive Climate Grants program. 

“As it is across the University of Chicago, climate in the PSD is considered a pillar of diversity and inclusion,” Fanning remarked. “It means striving to foster a social and intellectual environment within the Division that reflects our core values of creating a culture of respect and inclusion without losing sight of equity. It is vital that all members of the PSD feel a sense of belonging and can participate fully in the life of the Division.”

“During this pandemic year, our funded groups had to get creative with carrying out their ideas, and their tenacity is appreciated,” she said.

The 2020 Inclusive Climate Grants funded four proposals. Three had to uniquely approach the challenge of adapting to remote programming during the pandemic.

Fostering belonging for young women in mathematics

Mathilde Gerbelli-Gauthier

Grantees from the Department of Mathematics Mathilde Gerbelli-Gauthier, then a graduate student, and Dana Mendelson, an assistant professor, received support for a lunch series that brings female students and postdocs together to hear from the distinguished women mathematicians visiting the department for research seminars. 

Graduate student Raluca Havarneanu conceived of the series five years ago with the goal of gathering young women and positive female role models. For four successful years since then, the “lunchtime ado” has gathered 10-15 students, two to three times a term, to network with more senior women and converse about the experience of being a woman in mathematics. Gerbelli-Gauthier said funding has traditionally bought lunch, and during the pandemic was used to cover takeout for the Zoom speakers.

“For the women grad students who attend these lunches, it offers a sense of belonging to mathematics,“ said Mathilde Gerbelli-Gauthier, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. “The goal is to give them a wide variety of positive female role models and to create connections to female mathematicians. To get beyond a climate that is traditionally hostile to women.”

Gerbelli-Gauthier commented that the feeling in the room is social and positive, delivering on a goal to foster allyship. Though the lunch series has only met twice on Zoom during COVID-19, Gerbelli-Gauthier reflected that, “It broke some isolation.” The group, which part of the UChicago chapter of the Association of Women in Mathematics, plans to apply 2020 grant funding towards next year’s series.

Uplifting the impact of women and non-binary persons in technology

Three rows of Zoom faces gathered for the Ada Lovelace Week 2020 meeting in Computer Science

For Pedro Lopes (he), Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science, and graduate students in his Human Computer Integration Lab, Jasmine Lu (she) and Jas Brooks (they), a new endeavor in the department—to train students in hardware and electronics—lent itself to shaping the departmental climate.

“Male stereotypes around hardware are deeply ingrained,” said Lopes, an expert in human computer interaction and wearable computing. “We have a blank slate compared to many engineering schools; however, we must quickly create opportunities for female and non-binary students to engage with the topic of electronics.”

What Lopes, Lu, and Brooks proposed was an electronics workshop for female and non-binary participants to create a fully working wearable interactive device using a hardware kit, including tools like microcontrollers and a solder. The workshop would take place on Ada Lovelace Day, in honor of the female inventor and programmer considered to be the founder of scientific computing.

Hands-on training was infeasible in a pandemic, yet Lu and Brooks remained inspired to run with their idea. Together with three more students from Lopes' lab, Yujie Tao (she), Dasha Shifrina (they), and Ziwei Liu (she), they reenvisioned the programming as Ada Lovelace Week—a slate of panels and presentations towards upending stereotypes about computing and uplifting the impact of women and non-binary persons in technology.

The planning meetings became a best of brainstorm, Lopes recalled. “We were throwing names of people that do electronics for artwork, for open-source, for CS, and even for industry, into a hat. Curating people we enjoy hearing about. And, many of them signed on!”

Boosted by impressive promotional efforts and a highly designed web presence, the group elevated the series into a statement about climate in the Computer Sciences. Zoom events featured women and non-binary scientists, artists, and technologists. Each presented a showcase of their work and discussed experiences of being non-binary or a woman in their fields. The opening sessions attracted over 250 viewers, far surpassing the grant’s intended impact of twelve participants.

“While it is hard to pick any favorites among 10 incredible talks,” Lopes commented, “a highlight was an inspiring talk by Constanza Piña Pardo, a Chilean visual artist, dancer, and researcher who works with electronic media, with an emphasis on open-source and do-it-yourself technologies. Her projects are not only inspiring as provocative artworks, but, just as importantly, she empowers her surrounding communities to create artwork and use or remix technologies.” 

Another talk Lopes mentioned exemplified the spirit of celebrating the impact of women in electronics and industry. Electrical engineer Philippa Ngaju Makobore of Uganda Industrial Research Institute presented her group’s designs of electronic devices appropriate and affordable for low-resource contexts in healthcare, like an award-winning diagnostic tool for pneumonia and an electronically controlled IV. Her leadership sustains improved health outcomes through the process of co-design and brings it to scale globally. 

Other lectures explored the societal impacts of technology, geo-political activism, and counterculture. Artist, educator, and researcher Ari Melenciano introduced work she said is informed by the Black radical imagination, for example the sounds and visuals of the Black Power movement. The project she founded, Afrotectopia, is a social institution that fosters interdisciplinary innovation at the intersections of art, design, technology, Black culture, and activism through collaborative research and practice.

Lopes said he and his students hope to continue Ada Lovelace programming next year, hopefully finally realizing the original intended format with some hands-on electronics upon UChicago’s return to campus.

Ensuring collaborations are accessible

The ATLAS collaboration at UChicago
Members of the ATLAS collaboration at UChicago

The ability of Disabled, and specifically Deaf, persons to fully participate in the scientific events and collaborations hosted and led by UChicago and the PSD was the motivation for Assistant Professor David Miller, Department of Physics, to apply for an Inclusive Climate Grant. 

Miller was an organizer of the ATLAS Hadronic Final State Forum, a gathering that brought 34 scientists to campus in December 2019. The primary goal of the forum is to push the frontier of jets and their substructure through a collaborative exchange of ideas. In breakout sessions, participants discussed interesting experimental problems and novel algorithms and techniques to extend the physics toolkit of ATLAS. 

“This is a true workshop-style meeting that serves as a complement to more presentation-focused meetings,” said Miller. “The goal is spurring collaboration, innovation, and actual ‘work’ in the areas of jets, jet substructure, missing energy reconstruction, pile-up, and triggering for, well….hadronic final states!” Many projects have been started at the forum and then continued with great success in the broader ATLAS collaboration.

For Miller, hosting the meeting meant making sure every attendee could join the conversation. As the advisor for many years of a Deaf graduate student, he had become sensitized to rooms where people were talking over each other. 

That student, Giordon Stark, is now a postdoc at UC Santa Cruz and a collaborator on ATLAS. His attendance at the forum inspired the Inclusive Climate Grant request. “It is a very collaborative, dynamic atmosphere, and everyone is expected to do work that week and present it on Friday. It can lead to discussions that are not scripted and don’t necessarily involve prepared slides on a projector,” Miller said. “It’s exactly the type of context where Deaf can get left behind.”

Stark was used to deciphering information from interpreters, captioners, and the body language of others, but circulating breakout sessions and collaborating with people would necessitate a companion interpreter adept at scientific communication. Fortunately, he had two skilled interpreters whom he used during his years in the PSD and was able to book one. 

“It’s always a challenge to make sure my access to my research exists,” Stark said, “but it always helps to have someone involved who’s been a fantastic advocate for years to take some of that burden.”

Calling attention to the lived experiences of being Deaf in academia, Stark pinned a tweet around the time of the forum about the nuances required for exceptional interpretation, mentioning ease with jargon, a positive attitude, reception to teamwork, and familiarity with global accents as often preferable to an interpreter’s knowledge of physics. He has also introduced some new physics terms into the ASL lexicon, like particle physics, which you can see signed in Symmetry.

A safe space for EDI in A&A

group portrait of UChicago IDEA Group in Astro on a maroon background
Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Astronomy

Back in 2017, a group of graduate students and postdocs from the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics created IDEA, or Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Astronomy. Their goals included opening discussion of EDI-related topics, creating a safe space for peer support, and advocacy for reforming admissions, advising, and climate. Bi-weekly meetings since its inception have strengthened their impact.

Members Nora Shipp and Gourav Khullar, both astronomy graduate students, applied for Inclusive Climate Grant funding in support of IDEA Day. In 2019, the half-day event in May featured invited talks by speakers from around the Chicagoland area highlighting junior Black astronomers, mental health support, and supporting first-generation, low-income, and minoritized students in the classroom. More than fifty people attended its inaugural launch. 

The plan for 2020 was to host two to four speakers and workshops on topics like inclusive mentoring and supporting women and gender minorities of color in the department. With more time to plan during stay-at-home, Shipp and Khullar used the grant money to expand the event into IDEA Week. Conducted in August 2020, they curated a week of events, talks and workshops centered around racism, issues with the diversity and inclusion discourse, activism, self-care, and inclusive teaching. It was attended by 125 members across PSD throughout the week. 

“This conference was an attempt to bring radical conversations into the traditional discussions of the diversity, equity, and inclusion framework,” Khullar said. “It was a step toward action-oriented and community-based responses to structural issues.” 

Highlights included a talk on “The Problem with Diversity and Inclusion” by Prof. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire, a panel on “Activism as a Junior Black Scientist” featuring Ashley Walker, KeShawn Ivory, LaNell Williams, and Ayanna Jones, and a talk by artist and astrophysicist Dr. Nia Imara on “Racism and Capitalism.” A science workplace consultant presented on rest and workflow for marginalized scientists and astronomy staff member, Brent Barker, gave a talk on inclusive classrooms during COVID-19. 

The PSD Inclusive Climate Grant program is currently accepting applications through April 30. Projects must support the PSD EDI mission and vision by enhancing inclusion in the PSD broadly or locally in specific units. All PSD students, faculty and OAA’s, postdocs, and staff are invited to submit proposals online for up to a year’s worth of activities, with budgets up to $2,000 per year.

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