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Caltech's Diversity in Chemistry Initiative Hosts Day of Inclusion

Speaking to a rapt audience in Beckman Auditorium on January 19, chemist André Isaacs paused to emphasize his key message: "You can't do good science if you leave aspects of who you are at the door."

His remarks were part of part of Caltech's Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE) Day of Inclusion, a half-day event to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in chemistry at Caltech. Highlights included lectures by Richmond Sarpong, a professor at UC Berkeley; and André Issacs, an associate professor at College of the Holy Cross; plus a speaker panel, two workshop sessions, and a dinner social to round out the day.

More than 200 students, staff, postdocs, and faculty in CCE attended the panel discussion that featured Issacs, Sarpong, and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux, Caltech's assistant vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion, and assessment.

André Isaacs speaks at the Day of Inclusion.
André Isaacs speaks at the Day of Inclusion. Credit: Paolina Martinez/Caltech

"The success of the Day of Inclusion event, in my perspective, is measured not by its scale, but by the impact it may have on just one individual," says Melinda Chan, graduate student and president of the student-led Diversity in Chemistry Initiative (DICI), who conceived of and coordinated the Day of Inclusion. "If it has shifted the perspective of just one person towards DEI efforts, motivated one person to engage in these workshop series, or made one underrepresented individual feel the warmth of a supportive community, then we've achieved our goal."

In the keynote lectures and panel discussion, Sarpong and Issacs spoke about their experiences with authenticity and inclusivity in their STEM careers. Sarpong, who grew up in Ghana, Zambia, and Botswana; and Issacs, who grew up in Jamaica, both reflected that they felt grateful to grow up in primarily Black communities, where they developed a strong sense of belonging at an early age.

"Feeling that sense of belonging was critical to my success in chemistry," Issacs said.

Issacs and Sarpong also both came to the United States for their bachelor's and doctoral degrees, as well as postdoctoral training. Sarpong completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech with Brian Stoltz, the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry, Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, and DEI officer for CCE. Issacs completed his postdoctoral fellowship with Sarpong at UC Berkeley.

Sarpong, Issacs, and Malcom-Piqueux take part in the panel discussion.
Sarpong, Issacs, and Malcom-Piqueux take part in the panel discussion. Credit: Paolina Martinez/Caltech

The panel discussion encapsulated the spirit of the day with its candid dialogue about potential barriers to inclusivity in university settings, the false narrative that focusing on DEI takes away from research excellence, and how to shift institutional cultures. One of the most impactful ideas the panelists shared was also the simplest:

"Students want to know that you support them, and you care about them," said Sarpong, who is also executive associate dean of the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry. "Start with the person next to you."

Richmond Sarpong delivers a keynote lecture.
Richmond Sarpong delivers a keynote lecture. Credit: Paolina Martinez/Caltech

Issacs also emphasized the importance of creating a supportive and healthy lab environment where students feel comfortable being their authentic selves. He promotes the same message in his widely viewed TikTok and Instagram videos.

"I do what I do [on social media] to encourage participation of a broader group of people in STEM," Issacs said.

Following the panel discussion, attendees took part in two workshops where they could choose from several training sessions facilitated by Caltech's Center for Inclusion and Diversity; Title IX Office; Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach; Student-Faculty Programs; and Caltech Accessibility Services for Students. Workshops covered topics including "Balancing Activism with Research," "Promoting Lab Cohesion," "Imposter Syndrome," and "Introduction to Neurodiversity and Universal Design."

To conclude the day, attendees enjoyed a dinner social in the Hameetman Center with the speakers and event organizers.

"You can really tell that there's a lot of energy to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives," Issacs reflected on the day. "What I'm going to take away from this is, ‘how can I, in my own life and work, continue to advance these initiatives?' It's something that we all have to continuously work on."

Written by Julia Ehlert