Freshman seminar creates a climate of inclusion

February 20, 2020
Traci Grzymala speaks with students as part of a resume workshop

Traci Grzymala speaks with students as part of a resume workshop for How to Be a CNR Scientist. Grzymala, who began teaching the course in 2017, asks students to challenge common misconceptions about scientific identity. Photo by Anjika Pai.

“It’s essential to talk about how you view yourself as a scientist, while thinking about inclusion and diversity,” says Traci Grzymala, an Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) alumna turned course instructor. “If you don’t see people who have similar stories to your own, then it becomes difficult to visualize yourself following a certain path.”

Since its inception in 2017, Grzymala has taught How to be a CNR Scientist, a freshman seminar that exposes undergraduates in the College of Natural Resources to scientific research while building professional development skills. In the class, students develop a network of supportive peers, tour laboratory facilities, and have opportunities to connect with professors. A central course tenet is a commitment to bolstering equity and inclusion in science, encouraging students to question stereotypes about scientific identity and to view diverse backgrounds in science as valuable.

Made possible by gifts from alumni Jim Vokac (’76) and Stacey Baba (’77), the seminar was born of a conversation with Rebecca Sablo, the College's Assistant Dean of Instruction and Student Affairs at the time. Baba and Vokac had previously supported Sponsored Projects for Undergraduate Research (SPUR), a College program that provides grants for faculty-undergraduate research collaborations, among other programs. They wanted to go further in addressing low retention rates of under-represented groups across STEM disciplines, and to help enhance diversity and inclusion in science. After discussing various possibilities with Sablo, the group moved forward to find an instructor. Grzymala—herself a first generation college student and first generation graduate student—interviewed and was offered the position. 

Within the framework of SPUR and the campus-wide Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP), the class offers undergraduates a direct pathway to collaborate with faculty and graduate students with similar academic interests. Early in the semester, students explore research topics and labs before applying to join a group through SPUR or URAP.

Class meetings vary each week, so no two classes are alike. Some days students spend the hour developing a portfolio of professional documents, such as application letters or resumes catered to research positions, jobs, or internships. Other days, the students take an intimate tour of a lab.

One such tour was led by Ignacio Escalante, a PhD candidate from Costa Rica who studies spider behavior in the lab of professor Damian Elias. Amidst Halloween stickers and cutouts of spiders on the walls, Escalante answered questions ranging from how arachnids communicate with each other to his own experience as an international student at Berkeley. 

Empowering undergraduates in research

Grzymala first became involved in science education and discovered her passion for helping undergraduates when she was a graduate student working for Berkeley Connect, a program for undergraduates that centers on mentorship and community-building. Berkeley Connect aims to strengthen students’ professional development, foster a close-knit community, and help students navigate academic life on campus. With Baba and Vokac’s support and input, Grzymala led the design of How to be a CNR Scientist while also taking on the role of instructor. 

Grzymala structured the semester-length course around one-hour meetings in the evenings, so as not to overwhelm students with high workloads. Office hours are informal and by appointment, and small group dinners take place each week at campus dining facilities, during which small groups from the class can get to know each other in a relaxed setting.

Two students discuss professional portfolios during an activity for How to Be A CNR Scientist

Two students discuss professional portfolios during an activity for How to Be A CNR Scientist. At the end of the semester, students walk away prepared to apply for internships and research positions. Photo by Anjika Pai.

From her own experience, Grzymala knows how intimidating and mysterious the landscape of university life can seem to students. “I completed my undergraduate degree at a large, overwhelming institution where it was at times difficult to find and obtain mentorship,” she says. “I didn’t really understand what undergrad research was, or have much guidance, so I was floundering.”

She hopes that, at the end of the semester, her students walk out with a clearer view of their interests, a greater comfort with the research landscape, and some meaningful connections at Berkeley. In addition, students leave with a professional portfolio, geared towards obtaining research opportunities and internships.

"I feel strongly that students learn from their peers, and that those connections really matter," says Grzymala. "I want to help students recognize that their professors and GSIs are professional resources, but I also hope they recognize that the person sitting next to them is an incredible resource as well."

Student takeaways

Amanda Chu, a second year student in Molecular and Evolutionary Biology, enrolled in the course after Grzymala gave a talk at a freshman orientation event. “I liked how every other student in the class was in the College and also interested in research,” says Chu. “It was great to have an open space to talk about these topics. And because the college is relatively small, I still see and keep in touch with a few of those people.” 

Class activities that stood out for Chu were visits to the Oxford Research Unit and the Energy Biosciences Institute, as well as an assignment on the lab of plant and microbial biology professor Peter Quail, who investigates how light regulates gene expression in plants. 

Chu highly recommends the course to other students, noting that “It prepares you for college and research and even industry after you graduate.” After applying for externships in the pre-health field and weighing an offer for a position in Southern California, she decided to take a research position in the Family and Culture Lab at Berkeley.

PhD candidate Ignacio Escalante shows the students the high speed cameras and other motion-detecting equipment used by the researchers to study spider behaviors

PhD candidate Ignacio Escalante shows the students the high speed cameras and other motion-detecting equipment used by the researchers to study spider behaviors. Photo by Anjika Pai.

Katrina Mai Cone, a third-year majoring in Conservation and Resource Studies, says the course set her up to pursue an interest in climatology and connect with ESPM professor Dennis Baldocchi. Thanks in part to the course, she felt encouraged to attend office hours and establish working relationships with her professors. When a chance to study climate change mitigation and plant emissions presented itself, Mai Cone was prepared. She joined the Baldocchi lab, and when a graduate student later left, Baldocchi offered Mai Cone an opportunity to help lead the project.

“Having that enriching research experience gives you a different perspective,” says Mai Cone. “The seminar led me to start thinking about how to better plan my time at Berkeley.”

Jessica Chen, a sustainable environmental design major in the College of Environmental Design, most enjoyed touring the labs and having one-on-one interactions with graduate students. “It was humanizing, and it made me realize I could do research if I wanted to,” says Chen. She ended up working under two ESPM professors on wildly different subjects: assisting ESPM professor Kurt Spreyer on historical archives of ships in the East Bay, then studying agroecology and cataloging parasitoid wasps in professor Miguel Altieri’s lab.

Those experiences, while invaluable, led Chen to realize that she wanted to pursue real-world applications over pure research. But she credits Grzymala and the course as being instrumental in helping her formulate her goals and discover her career interests. “The class sets you up for success,” says Chen. “I feel like it really made the implicit explicit when it comes to applying to things, whether for research or jobs in general.”

The course, entering its fourth semester, will again be available in Fall 2020. Students can learn more and enroll on the Freshman Seminars website. To learn more about the How to be a CNR Scientist course and how you can help expand the program, please contact Andrew Judd at judd@berkeley or 510-642-6707.