Thanks to a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which supports students from underrepresented backgrounds through science education programs, 11 Wellesley students served as advisors to the College’s STEM departments this year. They collaborated with professors and classmates to create inclusive environments where students of all backgrounds can thrive. Megan Kerr ’89, Katharine and Claudine Malone ’63 Professor of Mathematics, was one of the advisors for the project.

At this year’s Ruhlman Conference, held April 26, advisors Ailie Wood ’24 and Karen Cordova ’25, along with their nine fellow advisors, hosted a panel discussion focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across STEM departments. The conference, made possible by the generosity of Barbara Peterson Ruhlman ’54, is intended to foster collaboration among students and faculty across the disciplines and to enhance the intellectual life of the College.

The Lamppost caught up with Megan, Ailie, and Karen about the experience.

Professor Kerr, how did you come to be an advisor for this Ruhlman project focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across STEM departments?

Megan Kerr: I joined the HHMI-supported team in math for spring 2023. My colleagues Karen Lange and Ann Trenk have been working with students since fall 2020 to help make the math department a welcoming community for all our students. The first year, they created a survey for all math students. Since then, we have been making changes (and creating programming) based on the survey results. Our math student interns, Karen Cordova ’25 and Ailie Wood ’24, coordinated with the HHMI interns working in other STEM departments (bioscience, biochemistry, chemistry, computer science, environmental studies, geoscience, neuroscience, math, and physics) to put together this Ruhlman presentation.

Why is it important for STEM departments to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Ailie Wood: Students can come into college with a lot of negative past experiences in STEM, math especially. STEM can feel more intimidating to a lot of Wellesley students because they don't see themselves represented well in these fields. If their professors and fellow students don't look like them or have a similar background, it can be harder for students to feel like they have a place in that field.

Karen Cordova: We want all students—particularly those from groups that have historically been excluded or underrepresented—to feel that they belong and can succeed in STEM. Striving for equity in classrooms and content paves the way for students to feel included in every STEM community they might encounter at Wellesley and beyond.

How do you support students from diverse backgrounds?

Cordova: Throughout the year, we have tried to bridge the gap between faculty and students, focusing on making sure that students feel comfortable approaching professors and fellow classmates. We tried to create a sense of community for students who have historically struggled to transition to higher-level courses. Other departments have created models such as the anti-microaggression module and content revisions to make spaces for students of diverse backgrounds more direct. Overall, the HHMI program aims to find ways to address inequities within STEM spaces and present opportunities for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Why is DEI so important in STEM fields?

Kerr: Science is improved when it is informed by different perspectives from a wide range of communities so that there are many voices at the table. Ideally, this diversity would be normalized, and the next generation of students would see plenty of role models and no barriers.

What is your favorite part about working with students on large-scale projects like this one?

Kerr: The students are so creative and dedicated. In this endeavor, we are equals, interacting on equal footing. They are not afraid to disagree (politely), and I am impressed in every meeting. They lead the activities, doing everything from panel moderating to T-shirt designing, poster designing, etc. They compose and send the email blasts, whether to all math students or to all math/stats majors/minors, or to the math faculty. For this Ruhlman panel, our math interns found and organized the group of all STEM subject interns.

What have you learned from working with students from across STEM disciplines?

Cordova: Collaboration is a vital component of much of the work we do in STEM fields. Within the mathematics department, we encounter many students who are looking to major in other STEM areas. Through these interactions I’ve come to realize that finding common ground with other students is an essential part of feeling comfortable enough to take on difficult classes and assignments. There is strength in knowing that support and resources are available to help you succeed.

What do you hope attendees of the Ruhlman Conference take away from this panel?

Kerr: I hope my colleagues are inspired to get involved in DEI outreach events and will see that changes do not have to be dramatic to make big improvements in the atmosphere and feeling of belonging for students from underrepresented groups, especially students who are low-income or first-generation.

Wood: We want every student to walk away feeling like they have a whole team of people supporting them who are willing to listen and make changes. We also hope that attendees, both faculty and students, think critically about how they can better welcome students around them.