Building a more inclusive scientific community through the Chancellor’s Science Scholars

The Chancellor's Science Scholar's program at Carolina is supporting promising young scientists and actively working to build a more diverse scientific community. That goal, director Thomas Freeman says, is critical to everybody.

A photo of a chemical hood.
Scene from one of the chemistry labs for the UNC Department of Applied Physical Sciences on June 29, 2017, in Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

When you think of a scientist, what do you see?

With less than 20% of STEM leadership positions being held by women and less than 10% of the STEM workforce being Black or Hispanic, it’s likely not a person that reflects the country’s demographics.

The Chancellor’s Science Scholars program at Carolina is tackling that problem head-on and building toward more diverse and inclusive STEM fields.

Based in the College of Arts & Sciences, the program is modeled after the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is open to students of all backgrounds who plan to pursue doctoral STEM studies, including individuals who have traditionally been underrepresented in the STEM fields.

Thomas Freeman

Thomas Freeman is the director of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars and an associate professor of chemistry. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“We are meant to serve the public and serve the people of North Carolina. Our student population should reflect the state that we serve. Access to opportunities in STEM and trying to help students who want to pursue STEM is a big part of our mission as a University,” said Thomas Freeman, the director of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars and an associate professor of chemistry. “Programs like this really give the University the tools and the ability to actually fulfill that mission.”

Since launching in 2013, the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program has trained 241 Tar Heels in nine cohorts, with more than 80% of the program’s alumni going on to pursue STEM graduate programs or enter the STEM workforce.

“We get to be one of a handful of programs in the country who do this kind of work at this level, helping students — from mostly underrepresented groups — who want to pursue advanced degrees in a STEM field actually get there,” Freeman said. “There are only six programs like this in the country, and we’re a national leader at this.”

Keep reading to learn more about the program and Freeman’s vision for the future

What is the goal of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars?

This is about building the students up and helping them realize that they have the potential to be leaders and help their field become more inclusive. It’s not just, “Can you be great at doing science?” Is there any way to use your position, use your power or authority to make your field more inclusive, and bring more people in? They need to increase the diversity of their fields because that leads to greater innovative capacity, which will help us better serve the needs of our ever-increasingly diverse population.

If you look at the attrition rates for people moving up through STEM fields — especially students of color or women — the numbers are really bad. Women are a little more than a half of the U.S. population, but when you get to top-level positions in various STEM fields, they usually represent somewhere around 20% or less. There’s a huge disparity for women, for underrepresented minorities. You compare Black and Latino students across the country, and they make up more than 35% of the population together but then make up less than 5% or 10% of the STEM workforce.

We have some huge underrepresentation problems. We have lots of demographic shifts and population growth. And so, as we become more diverse, we need to train more scientists from different groups. That way, we can continue to be leaders and stop falling behind. It may not be that widely known, but we are falling behind in most STEM fields — chemistry, physics, computer science, you name it. We’re falling behind most other countries.

It’s also the right thing to do. People should have access to every opportunity.

What is the most important aspect of the program?

It’s definitely the community. It’s the support. We developed this rich culture of care and accountability. That is part of who we are, and that’s the foundation of our community: caring and accountability.

We hold the students to high expectations, but we also provide a very supportive environment for them to stretch, grow and to try things out and to fail a little bit. So we’re right there for them, and they’re there for each other. So having that community is really important to allow and foster growth.

One of the biggest psychological things that the students have to combat is impostor syndrome. A lot of them don’t think they belong here. They think we made a mistake picking them for this program. They don’t think they can get into a lab, so they’re afraid to ask the researcher if they can be in their labs. There’s some self-doubt that comes in. So, our message to the students is, “You’re amazing. They’d be fools not to take you in.”

We try to help them build their self-confidence through that type of support, but also them seeing the accomplishments of their peers who went before them. Now they’re seeing clear examples of people who look like them, who are out there doing these amazing things and are being successful. That’s how we overcome that very big hurdle.

What do the Chancellor’s Science Scholars bring to our campus community?

We’re really showing that this model, this cohort-based model, is really powerful for helping students persist in what they want to do. It’s the community, but it’s also making sure the students all have research experience and opportunities. What you learn in the classroom is important, but it pales in comparison to actually getting in the lab or actually engaging in a real research project where you’re starting to make some contributions there. And so, our students are making contributions there. We have several who have first-author publications. So, they have huge impacts as researchers.

They’re also having a big impact on the community because they serve as peer mentors for a lot of our large-enrollment STEM courses like Chem 101 and Bio 101 — those types of courses where you need lots of help if you’re going to do the type of teaching for example, high-structured active learning, that we do here on campus. Our students also serve as private tutors. They do things outside of STEM, too. They’re taking on leadership positions, creating clubs and, so much more.

Students have a huge impact. I’ve had faculty tell me that the student they got to work with from the Chancellor’s Science Scholars was the best undergrad that they’ve ever had in their life. And these are people who’ve been around for a while, so I believe them.

What does the future for the Chancellor’s Science Scholars look like?

I’m excited about the future because our students are getting out there and making their way through their grad programs. We’re starting to have some complete those programs, especially going to medical school. I’m excited to see what they’re going to do as professionals. We’ll keep preparing more students to do that sort of thing.

If I’m thinking about what I want the program to look like in the future, one interesting and important thing that’s happened recently is that we’ve partnered with Honors Carolina. So now we’re a part of Honors Carolina, which elevates the status of the program, and it shows this University is making a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion. Along with that, what I’d like to see us do, in the hopefully not too distant future, is begin to offer all students full-ride scholarships. I want to see us recruiting larger cohorts to give more students the opportunity to benefit from our highly effective programming and graduate debt-free.

Learn more about the Chancellor’s Science Scholars and meet the program’s students