Once upon a time,” starts Caltech vice provost Cindy Weinstein, ever the professor of English, “fifty, sixty years ago, the humanities were taught mostly by white men, as was the literature that students read: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, Zola, Faulkner. But beginning in the sixties and seventies, women and African Americans entered graduate school in greater numbers, and they were reading different things—for example, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—or reading the same books but asking different questions. In doing so, diversity has brought new life—what we might think of in the scientific context as ‘innovation’—to the study of literature.

“Indeed excellence,” Weinstein says, “has been the result of diverse scholars entering the field, reexamining many of its traditional assumptions and developing creative interpretations or making new ‘discoveries’ possible. Excellence, diversity, creativity. That’s what we’re about at Caltech.” Jackie Barton, the Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, agrees. “When you ignore large portions of the population, you’re missing out on all that talent. For instance, I always have a lot of women graduate students; I think of them as my secret weapon. They help my lab to do outstanding work—the best work we can do.”

But does the fact that they are women actually change the questions  that are asked, the research that is done? Barton, ever the scientist herself, pauses. “Well, I can’t say,” she finally replies. “Because I can’t do the control.” What she—and many others—can say is that building a diverse community of students, faculty, and staff is critical to fulfilling the Institute’s mission, to keeping Caltech at the top of its game.

“Diversity and excellence are symbiotic,” says Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum. “If we’re not drawing people from different races and genders, then we’re not getting the best and brightest, period.”

“Science is based on creativity,” notes Emily Blythe, a graduate student in biochemistry and molecular biophysics and the diversity officer for Caltech’s Graduate Student Council (GSC). “It’s that diversity of ideas and experiences that will enrich our science, that will let us do the best science.”

“We need to be a destination for people whose passion is to do great science,” agrees Weinstein. “Which means we need to make Caltech a place where everyone feels welcomed. If you’re not worrying about or experiencing bias in the lab, you’re going to do better science.”

Creating Diversity

Important and honorable goals, for sure, but the reality is that they are not always easy ones to reach—especially at a school the size of Caltech, where the student population is small to begin with. Indeed, talking about diversity—in general as well as from a higher education perspective—is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, says Barton. “Students need to feel like they have a community,” she notes. “We need to establish critical mass, and to make sure there are enough women on the faculty as well as among the students.”

Barton adds that if students don’t see themselves—see people with whom they can identify—walking around Caltech when they come to visit, they are much less likely to see themselves attending Caltech. And if those students choose not to attend Caltech, of course, the next class of students—and potential faculty and staff, for that matter—will have just as hard a time envisioning themselves here.

Blythe recalls arriving at Caltech for her graduate student orientation from her small liberal arts—read: majority female—undergraduate school. “It was a bit of a shock,” she recalled. “For the first few weeks, I actually felt ‘different’ because I was a woman.” It was that experience that prompted her involvement in the GSC’s diversity programming. “We have such a welcoming community,” she says. “It’s important that we make sure it’s open to everyone, that diversity issues don’t hinder anyone’s career.”

Great sentiments, all, but what do they look like in practice? How do you embrace or even create diversity? Caltech has done it, in part, by creating the Caltech Center for Diversity (CCD), run by director Eva Graham and assistant directors Taso Dimitriadis and Erin-Kate Escobar. The CCD is devoted to “supporting access, equity, and inclusion,” says Escobar, who focuses on women’s services and support and on gender equity. Specifically, the center aims to help provide wide-ranging access  to admissions information and other campus resources, and to support those activities that work toward the inclusion of women, as well as the underrepresented, underserved, and minority (URM) and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) faculty, staff, postdocs, and students at the Institute. The CCD also provides confidential consultations, and works with Felicia Hunt, Caltech’s Title IX coordinator, to ensure compliance with the 1972 federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs or activities.

At the Grad Level

To signal—and to solidify—the Institute’s commitment to increasing diversity at the graduate and postdoctoral levels, in 2013 Caltech joined with UC Berkeley, Stanford, and UCLA to create the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) to support the professional development of underrepresented minority students in the fields of mathematics, the physical sciences, computer science, and engineering. The four institutions have committed to increase diversity by creating programs specifically to recruit, retain, and advance URM students.

According to data from the California Alliance, while there’s been a gradual increase in the number of URM students over the past several decades, the numbers drop off at each step along the path to a faculty appointment, with underrepresented minorities making up 10 percent of new PhDs, 9 percent of continuing PhDs, 8 percent of conferred PhDs, 6 percent of postdocs, and only 4 percent of faculty.

So the California Alliance was created “to not only diversify our own campuses,” Joseph E. Shepherd (PhD ’81), Caltech’s new vice president for student affairs who was, until recently, dean of graduate studies, said in an interiew about the alliance, “but also to contribute to diversity [at campuses] throughout the nation” by working to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who become faculty—and who then, by being present and visible as well as by taking active mentoring roles, will encourage others to follow in their footsteps. AGEP seeks to accomplish this by creating a community of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members across the four California institutions, providing faculty training, and conducting research to identify exactly what factors—both positive and negative—impact a student during his or her preparation for a career in research and academia.

In 2015, AGEP—which is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation—held its second annual mentoring and network-building retreat on the Caltech campus. Rosenbaum welcomed the group by talking about the importance of going beyond the typical image of whitecoated scientists alone in subbasement laboratories, and instead recognizing that science can be—is—“this enormously convivial enterprise.” Of course, he noted, those white lab coats do exist, and that “too often and for too long [they] have been filled solely with white males.” This, he said, is a problem for the science community as a whole. “We’re in the people and talent business. And, a priori, if we are not attractive and we’re not attracting people from all backgrounds, from all perspectives, from all experiences, we will not be attracting the best people.”

The Best Ideas

Of course, not every possible path to increased diversity has to involve the creation of a center or an alliance or even a large-scale program. Some of the best ideas, in fact, can be the simplest. Take for instance, the program that Blythe is currently spearheading—one that is trying to address the so-called “small numbers problem.” Caltech’s individual options are small enough that a woman or URM or LGBTQ individual might feel isolated when visiting campus. And so, Blythe says, “when graduate students are admitted, or even before, we want to bring all of them together—from all of the options—on a given weekend. We want them to see that there may not be a community in their option, but that there is a community on campus.

We want them to know that they’re welcome here.” But feeling welcome isn’t enough; a true community is one that constantly grows and evolves to meet  its members’ needs. The CCD’s Women Mentoring Women program, for instance, matches postdoctoral scholars with upper-level graduate women and upper-level graduate women with first year graduate women for a one-to-one mentoring experience. Similarly, this past summer, the GSC collaborated with the diversity center to kick off what they hope will be a series of “Coffee and Conversation” meetings on diversity, the first of which focused on gender and diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

As a result of that conversation, Escobar says, the group came up with “a few strategies to address bias on campus.” These included education around implicit bias, or the ways in which attitudes can affect our judgment and behavior at a subconscious level; training offered on bias and empathy; bystander intervention training, or training around the proper actions to be taken by those who witness, though are not involved in, troubling or harmful behavior; community building; and perspective sharing.

“It was one of the first campuswide conversations on gender and diversity in STEM,” says Blythe.  “We had a lot of staff and faculty come, in addition to grad students. I think people are just excited that the conversation is happening.”

And while these types of discussions are happening at all levels, graduate students are coming to Caltech with a unique perspective, says Dimitriadis, whose focus at the CCD is on LGBTQ issues. “They can compare and register differences from what they experienced as undergrads,” he points out. “They can help us to better pinpoint the ways we can improve.”

From an Early Age

Of course, if you’re trying to build diversity in science and engineering, you don’t stop (or, for that matter, start) with graduate students. Caltech’s administration is convinced that the pipeline to a more diverse professoriate begins not even at the figurative front door to campus, but as early in a science-interested young person’s life as possible.

That’s why the Institute partners with groups like Project Scientist to provide weeklong day-camp experiences to nurture the innate curiosity of girls ages 4 to 14 who are interested in STEM. It’s why we partner with IEG Global Corporation to create a two-week international version of our Community Science Academy, in which young students learn core science and engineering concepts and the research skills to perform experiments and build projects around those areas relevant to their home communities’ needs, such as agriculture, urban planning, and the environment.

At least some of those students, if they continue their interest in STEM, will wind up at Caltech. And once these best and brightest of students have chosen Caltech, the Institute wants them to grow, to thrive, to feel at home on campus. That was, in part, the impetus behind the Freshman Summer Research Institute (FSRI), which was created to start engaging students and building a community for them before they even begin their first year of coursework.

Caltech has also been a part of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program. MMUF is a national effort to increase the number of underrepresented students who will pursue PhDs in core fields in the arts and sciences, by working with them at the undergraduate level. MMUF fellows receive up to $10,000 in undergraduate debt forgiveness, stipends with which to pursue summer research, support to attend national and regional conferences where they can network, and mentoring by faculty members.

Diversity isn’t just about hitting a particular number or percentage, says Escobar. It’s about who we are as a campus. “The numbers are really important and getting critical masses is really important, but true success has to do with creating a campus environment that practices empathy and allyship,” she notes. “We have to go beyond just celebrating different cultures to actual empathy and understanding and inclusion.”

Of course, once you’ve created that environment, you have to be sure people are aware—and are able to connect with—what is being offered. “We do our best to create an environment where people have access to resources, to advocacy, to allyship [allying oneself with  underrepresented individuals or groups],” says Dimitriadis, “an environment where there is always support.” As an example, the CCD has created a Safe Zone program, which identifies and and educates community members supportive of the LGBTQ community at Caltech.

“At such a small institution it can feel isolating for everyone on campus sometimes, no matter who you are,” notes Dimitriadis. “So emphasizing those resources and the ways we can provide advocacy and allyship for each other—to enhance that climate and culture—is really important.” Blythe agrees.

“That,” she says, “sounds awesome.”

Written by Lori Oliwenstein