Increasing the diversity of individuals in the STEM fields is key to the future success of scientific research. A diverse team of researchers will have a wide range of experiences and connections from which they can draw. Ultimately, this range of backgrounds results in a range of perspectives, creating an environment conducive to innovative research. As is the case for many scientific disciplines, the aquatic sciences have historically lacked diversity. Although underrepresented minorities (URMs) comprise approximately 30% of the US population, they earn a small proportion of ocean science degrees: only 13% of ocean science bachelor’s degrees were awarded to URM students in 2010, with the proportion decreasing for masters and doctorate degrees. This absence of diversity can lead to a lack of role models and a feeling of isolation for minority students within their institution.
Changing the face of aquatic science
As one of only six white students in his high school graduating class, Dr Cuker has always been aware of the influence and importance of diversity. Over the last 37 years, Dr Cuker has built his career at Shaw University (1981–1988) and Hampton University (1988 – present), both historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Whilst his own research focuses on turbid lakes, estuarine ecology and hypoxia, Dr Cuker is passionate about increasing diversity in the aquatic sciences.
As a member of ASLO, the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (formerly the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography), Dr Cuker noticed the stark lack of diversity within the society’s meetings, and throughout the field of aquatic sciences. In response to this observation, Dr Cuker was instrumental in the establishment of the ASLO committee for diversity, formed in 1988 with Dr Cuker named as chair. Using his influence on the committee, together with his connections at HBCUs, Dr Cuker founded the ASLO Multicultural Program (ASLOMP). Implemented in 1990, the goal of ASLOMP is to increase the number of URM students electing careers in the aquatic sciences.
A unique student experience
Based on the annual week-long ASLO meeting, each year ASLOMP facilitates and funds 70 – 90 students to attend what is usually their first scientific conference. Students are encouraged to attend presentations, meetings and group meals throughout the conference and are given the opportunity to present their own research at poster sessions and in a supportive ‘student symposium’. In addition, students are allocated a ‘meeting mentor’, an ASLO member who helps prepare the student for the conference, offers guidance throughout the event, and provides constructive feedback on their presentation. The mentor also acts as a contact within the wider research community, introducing the students to other ASLO members and opening doors into internships, graduate study and research opportunities. The lifelong influence of these mentors is clear from the experiences of students such as Camille Gaynus who says, “The sense of community the MP programme builds with its participants and mentors involved has been invaluable to me. There are mentors I have met through the MP programme who are still a valuable component of my education and growth as a scientist”. In addition to the primary conference and the mentors, special activities such as field trips and workshops aim to create a sense of support and community among the students and set the scene for future professional collaborations. To ensure there are no financial barriers to participation, Dr Cuker has secured ongoing NSF funding, covering all student costs including airfares, meals and accommodation.
Fostering a multicultural perspective
The demographic of attendees to date clearly highlights how ASLOMP is promoting diversity in the aquatic sciences. Over 1,000 students have participated in the programme since 1990 and, of these, 68% are female, 52% African American, 39% Hispanic, 7% Native American, 6% Pacific Islander and 1% Asian. Deriving from over 250 different colleges and universities, each one of these individuals brings a unique background and perspective to the event. The number of returning students reflects the popularity and success of ASLOMP: as of 2015, 37% of students had returned in following years and attended at least twice.
The success of Dr Cuker’s work is evident in the achievements and testimonials of the students that have participated in ASLOMP. A follow-up study carried out in 2011 found that 94% and 59% of past participants had gone on to earn bachelors and graduate degrees, respectively. Of particular importance is the fact that the vast majority of these students earned their degrees in the aquatic sciences or other STEM subjects, with many participants going on to complete PhDs and return to the programme as mentors. In addition to academic success, participation within ASLOMP also develops confidence and leadership skills. Several ASLOMP participants have gone on to become elected members of the ASLO board of directors, and in 2009 an ex-ASLOMP student became the first African American to be elected to the ASLO board of directors. Although students often have suggestions for improvements to the programme, such as earlier recruitment and additional career guidance, participants clearly view ASLOMP as an important and highly valuable personal experience. Almost all past participants (94%) would recommend the programme to others, indeed 79% have already done so. This attitude is clearly reflected by students such as Tiara Moore who explains that: “Because of the MP, I was able to meet numerous scientists and felt compelled to run for the student position on the ASLO board … being in the MP really opened my eyes to the multidisciplinary aspects of my field, and really got me excited about my own current dissertation research. I wholeheartedly believe that the majority of my success rests on the hard work of Dr Benjamin Cuker and the ASLOMP!”
It is clear from students’ experiences, feedback and testimonials that Dr Cuker’s work is having a profound impact on the choices, opportunities and ultimately the careers of many minority students interested in the aquatic sciences. However, Dr Cuker’s work has repercussions far beyond the individual level: increased diversity is providing wider perspectives and fundamentally changing the research landscape of the aquatic sciences.
ASLOMP serves as a model for other scientific societies interested in building diversity. The Ecological Society of America, The Society of Wetland Scientists, Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, and Sigma Xi (Scientific Research Society) implemented programmes inspired by ASLOMP. While each of these emulations is unique, each adopted the concept of a “meeting-mentor” as a core feature. The meeting-mentor concept proved so useful in these diversity programmes that it has been adopted by ASLO and the American Geophysical Union on a broader scale aimed at welcoming mostly new and younger members to scientific society meetings. As former ASLOMP participants move forward in their careers, their very presence brings diversity to academic and work-place settings. Many also embrace the role of change-agents, acting at the individual and institutional level to promote diversity.
What opportunities have students been exposed to as a result of participation in ASLOMP?
Students have secured internships, travel grants, graduate school admission, post-doctoral positions, and employment through their ASLOMP participation. Some have become involved in committee work and leadership positions in ASLO, lending their fresh perspectives to the Society.
Who is eligible to attend ASLOMP?
ASLOMP is open to undergraduate and graduate students with a sincere interest in the aquatic scientists. They must be citizens of the US or permanent residents. All applicants must have a research project to present. The application includes academic transcripts, an abstract of their research, a personal statement, and a letter of recommendation from a scientist. It is competitive, with only about a third of applicants being accepted. About a third of the slots are reserved for students recommended by their NSF-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduate programme directors.
What is the recruitment process for ASLOMP?
The programme circulates a monthly newsletter that includes listings of various opportunities for students, as well as promoting ASLOMP. ASLO and partner societies promote the programme on their websites. Perhaps the best recruiting is done by word-of-mouth by former participants and their professors. In some minority-serving institutions, participation in ASLOMP is almost considered a rite-of-passage. This is true for Hampton University, The University of Puerto Rico, The University of Texas, El Paso, The University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, and Savannah State University.
What is the future of ASLOMP? How do you see the programme developing in the future?
ASLOMP is set to hold its 29th annual programme in Portland, OR in February of 2018. A new five-year proposal for its continuation is pending at the NSF. While ASLOMP and other programmes have changed the face of the aquatic sciences, the work is far from complete. ASLOMP will adhere to its core mission of promoting diversity through participation of traditional notions of underserved populations in the US, primarily people of colour and of Hispanic origin. However, ASLOMP has evolved to value a broader concept of diversity, embracing the participation of students with disabilities, first generation college-educated, and those from other underserved communities. The programme also values the participation of some majority students as a way to foster cross-cultural competencies. White privilege is a fact and it is important to cultivate those who have it to champion diversity and inclusion.
Dr Cuker’s project ‘Multicultural Diversity in the Aquatic Sciences’ aims to increase the number of students, particularly underrepresented minority students, electing careers in aquatic sciences.
National Science Foundation (NSF)
The success of the programme hinges on collaboration with numerous professors and agency officials. A short list includes; Paul Barber, Brian Bingham, Gregory Cutter, Deidre Gibson, Ambrose Jearld, Fredrika Moser, Lisa Rom, Miguel Sastre, Susan Weiler and Henry Williams.
Cuker’s scientific work includes the ecology of arctic lakes, turbid reservoirs and the Chesapeake Bay. He is best known for his programmes to build diversity in the aquatic sciences. These have been recognised with a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation and two awards from the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography.
Benjamin Cuker, PhD
Professor of Marine and
Department of Marine and
Hampton, VA 23668
T: +1 757 727 5884