Helping Students of Color in the Sciences Thrive

Grace Caldara brings her experiences as a woman of color in STEM and her work in social justice to her leadership of Tufts’ Center for STEM Diversity

Grace Caldara learned how to have difficult online conversations the hard way: by having them.

In 2015, as a new mother whose work teaching chemistry and conducting research was on hold, Caldara joined a parenting group on Facebook. “Whenever the topic of vaccines came up, there was a lot of misinformation out there.” Caldara said. “For someone with a science background, that was more than a little frustrating.”

Caldara took the time to post detailed explanations to the group. Often, responses to those explanations fell along a racial divide, and eventually the discussion threads morphed into conversations about race, microaggression, intersectionality, and related topics. Although Caldara’s expertise was in chemistry, she drew just as readily on communication skills gleaned from her time as a classroom instructor to help guide discussions that aimed for productive outcomes.

Caldara uses those same skills now, but in a very different capacity. The director of Tufts’ Center for STEM Diversity, Caldara focuses on developing programs to support students of color in the sciences. To do so effectively, she said, she listens carefully to students, provides guidance as they imagine and pursue their career paths, and shines a light for the university at large on the particular—often hidden—challenges faced by students of color in the sciences.

What are some of those challenges? According to Caldara, they begin with the lack of white privilege and continue through the experience of microaggressions and outright racism, to the lack of representation in STEM fields, to gaps in knowledge about how to proceed along a STEM career path. “In general, in academia, we need to do a better job of looking at a student as a whole,” Caldara explained, “and understanding that students’ personal experiences are going to impact them academically.”

Advantages of Early Exposure to STEM

Caldara has had her own share of personal experiences that inform how she approaches her work. Growing up in a tiny town near Albany, New York, she developed an early interest in science in part because her grandfather—a doctor who emigrated from the Philippines—told her when she was very young that she would be a doctor someday.

She didn’t choose that route exactly, but the early encouragement opened her mind to STEM study—and her biochemist uncle sealed the deal. “My mom was a single mom, so I spent a lot of time with my uncle,” Caldara said. “I remember going to his lab and seeing the work he’d done. Early in high school, I spent an entire week with college students in his lab. It really helped me develop this love for science, and chemistry seemed right for me. Whether in academia or industry, I wanted to be in the lab, solving problems.”

Caldara knows she was lucky: her family endowed her with belief in herself early on, so that she never questioned whether a woman of color belonged in chemistry. Without their encouragement and support, she said, she probably wouldn’t have pursued a STEM career.

“Early exposure is crucial,” Caldara said. “I was just around science all the time growing up. Because of that, I found opportunities in high school. Even though I was the only Black chemistry student at my college, I was able to advance partly because I’d had a lot of knowledge passed down to me about how to proceed along a STEM career path.”

Caldara remained keenly aware that not all students of color had those advantages. “I realized that I was in a position to talk to people about this,” she said. When she finished her Ph.D. and found work as a researcher and an adjunct professor, she began volunteering for Women in Science and Technology, a nonprofit group with a variety of programs, including one for high school students.

“I told participating students that if you’re interested in science, this is what you’ll want to look for, these are the questions you should ask, this is what you should do,” Caldara recalled. “I was trying to pass along the knowledge, because it’s a huge barrier if you don’t even know where to begin. It can set you back, and then you spend all this time trying to catch up. It shouldn’t be a secret.”

Bringing a Social Justice Perspective to Academia

When her first child was born, Caldara’s career took an interesting turn. Taking a break to spend time with him and figure out exactly what she wanted to do next, she found herself becoming more involved in Facebook parenting communities. Those spaces gave her a platform for continuing to share messages about both science and the harsh realities for many people of color in this country. “I started diving into educating fellow participants about vaccines and also exploring concepts and issues around social justice,” she explained.

At the time, the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group was exploding in popularity, and Caldara was invited to join. With measured, research-backed posts that sought mutual understanding among participants, Caldara soon was offered a job as director of engagement at the organization. When Pantsuit Nation merged with Supermajority, the nonprofit group focused on boosting women’s power and influence in politics, Caldara stayed on, developing a leadership program for young women of color.

After a couple of years, Caldara realized that, while she loved her work, she missed academia—especially her focus on the sciences. “I was looking for something to merge my background as a scientist with my newly honed expertise in justice, inclusion, and equity,” Caldara explained.

Her search brought her to the Center for STEM Diversity at Tufts, where Caldara has thrown herself into supporting the staff in a range of programs, including STEM AmbassadorsBridge to Engineering Success at Tufts (BEST), and Redefining the Image of Science and Engineering (RISE).

She is in the midst of devising a five-year strategic plan for the center. “A lot of our work right now is focused on creating community, and we are looking for ways to expand that,” she said. “Also, we’ve been embedded within the School of Engineering for a long time, so I’ve been thinking about how we can expand our offerings to ensure that all STEM students feel included.” As part of this, she is speaking with Arts and Sciences professors to expand her understanding of their offerings and the needs of their students.

Caldara also noted that she’s working on ways to position Center for STEM Diversity team members as both a resource for faculty and students—and as a third party that can break down the power structures that develop in academic settings. “It’s when those power structures start disappearing,” Caldara said, “that true diversity and inclusion begins to take hold.”

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