Several years into her graduate studies, Taylor A. Bramlett had an opportunity to point out the need for university programs to overcome the isolating environments that were experienced by students who were underrepresented in STEM. After that 2020 session on five-year goals for the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA), Bramlett went back to the department and with fellow Chemistry graduate students Matthew Culberson, Maribel Okiye, Dr. Wesley Pein, and Carolina Rojas Ramirez., created commUNITY.
“This was something that was really on my heart," says Bramlett, now a fifth-year Chemistry PhD candidate in the Matzger lab. "At that point I had been here for 3 years… In that time I hadn’t seen any real programs in place in the Chemistry Department for the BIPOC community.” She was specifically searching for a community that understood shared experiences of being underrepresented in predominantly white spaces.
In recognition of these efforts, Bramlett has won one of the prestigious Willie Hobbs Moore awards sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program. This set of awards recognize people in the Michigan community who are promoting equity in STEM. The awards celebrate the accomplishments of Willie Hobbs Moore, the first African American woman at U-M to earn a BS and MS in Electrical Engineering, and the first African American woman in the United States to earn a PhD in physics. This specific award presented to Bramlett is the Claudia Joan Alexander Trailblazer Award, which honors Dr. Claudia Alexander, who earned a PhD from the U-M in Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Science in 1993 and later led missions studying planets, moons, and comets at NASA. The award is given to an individual or team for developing an innovation, intervention, or program that supports equity in STEM courses, curricula, or careers.
commUNITY achieves the award’s aim by creating a collaborative and sustainable community between chemistry researchers (undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars), faculty, staff, and alumni, with a focus on providing support, recognition, and space for members of the chemistry community who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). The group aims to unify the chemistry department by providing knowledge and support to build trust and increase the number of underrepresented minority chemists who can succeed academically and professionally. The group does this by hosting professional development workshops, meetings, and social events to foster community and connections.
One essential prong to successfully recognize the work of BIPOC members involves the creation of an annual CHEM|UNITY symposium, which highlights the excellent scientific contributions made by members of the BIPOC community.
Bramlett explained that the CHEM|UNITY symposium is one way for allies to hear about the experiences and work of BIPOC chemists. “Chemistry is the one concept that brings us together, and we can use it to springboard to open dialogue for things that are happening to people and how it impacts the way we do everything,” Bramlett said.
These commUNITY connections combat this isolation that BIPOC students may feel as underrepresented members of primarily white departments and institutions, promoting equitable treatment within these spaces.
The executive board is currently made up of Chemistry PhD candidates: Bramlett serves as the President, 4th year Maribel Okiye serves as Vice President, 5th year Carolina Rojas Ramirez serves as Executive Assistant, and 4th year Exequiel Punzalan serves as Finance Officer.
“Since the start of commUNITY,” Bramlett explained, “we have pushed to make known and address issues that BIPOC communities have faced.” They have partnered with the Chemistry Department Administration and facilitated dialogue between other campus groups that promote equity in STEM--specifically highlighting resources for BIPOC chemists across campus. They have established a sustainable community built on the common experiences and camaraderie. “I have new mentors, I have new friends, and it’s not that isolated environment anymore,” Bramlett said.
Bramlett said that there is room for improvement in the ways that members of the Chemistry Department can support equity for chemists who are members of BIPOC communities, specifically in self-assessing personal bias, being open to conversations about race, and forming general connections.
The goals of commUNITY are evolving at this point to include recruiting and education. Carolina Rojas Ramirez, the Executive Assistant, said she hopes commUNITY can be a place for people to find belonging when they feel like they are falling through the cracks.