The Plant Biotechnology for Health and Sustainability Training Program (PBHS) actively seeks to involve participation from students, faculty, and staff that represent the many different perspectives in the broader STEM community. PBHS welcomes individuals from underrepresented minority groups, which includes (but is not limited to) members of under-represented, races, ethnicities, disability status, veteran status, educational attainment of parents (“first-generation”), immigration status, gender, sexuality or religion. Approx. 30% of our NIH funded participants are from groups underrepresented in plant biotechnology and 15% of the participants are veterans.
A top goal of the PBHS looking to the future is to be a part of increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups that recieve a Ph.D. in fields related to plant biotechnology. This involves efforts not only to broaden participation through robust recruitment, it requires fostering a supportive environment to retain students and ensure that trainees are able to recieve resources tailored to their needs in order to complete their dissertation work in a timely fashion. For this reason, we take a multifaceted approach to retention involving: i) careful selection of faculty trainers who value effective mentoring practices; ii) building a strong community of existing and former Trainees; iii) ensuring that the PBHS training environment is a good fit for potential student applicants during cohort selection; iv) empowering the voice of Trainees in the leadership of PBHS activities and in guiding the evolution of future programmatic goals; v) clear and early communication of PBHS expectations, and; vi) embedding mechanisms to maintain regular contact with students throughout their funded period. The approach has been successful: during the nearly nine years of PBHS program funded support, we have a 100% retention rate of the 25 NIH-funded students in the program.
For graduate students at MSU, a strength and a challenge is the vast number of programs and organizations with which students might become actively engaged with. In our discussions with URG students, they convey that they are eager to find their professional communities but can be intimidated by their choices. PBHS programming is designed to encourage each year’s incoming Trainees to become strongly connected with other students and build a cohort of current and former PBHS Trainees. A vibrant student community promotes student success by providing accessible role models, giving Trainees insight and support during challenging transitions, and providing alternative perspectives to those from faculty mentors. Building a cohort of students includes student participation in required PBHS coursework, such as student-led presentations, classroom discussions, formation of small student teams (e.g., for ‘plant biotechnology product pitches’), and active efforts to maintain involvement of previously graduated PBHS Trainees. The program directors also communicate regularly (~weekly) with program participants through PBHS student and faculty listservs, often to provide information about relevant campus activities and organizations such as special seminars, training opportunities, webinars, visits from industrial scientists, science education, and advocacy. The combination of these instructive activities helps to build a cohort of Trainees who share a common experience and who can provide “bottom-up” support to individuals at multiple stages of their dissertation training and beyond.
Critically, the annual PBHS symposium or retreat is an event that is organized around building student cohesion at multiple levels. PBHS leadership firmly believes that trainees should have a sense that they have a voice and genuine ownership over activities and in steering the goals of their training program. Placing students at the center of leadership for recurring events and actively seeking Trainee feedback is the central theme used to organize PBHS events and to guide the evolution of the program. Towards this philosophy, students are placed at the center of the planning, organization, and execution of the annual symposium or retreat. Each cohort of PBHS trainees self-selects new student leaders and use active discussion to come to a consensus on the expectations and responsibilities for student leaders and define which topic areas are of the most interest to the PBHS trainee community. This consensus is used as the basis for deciding which outside speakers, former trainees, faculty, biotechnology company representatives, and other participants to include in PBHS symposium/retreat activities. Trainees also establish the agenda for these annual meetings based on the subjects that are of the greatest general interest, such as panel discussions related to career development, effective mentor/mentee practices, or other topic areas beyond the scientific agenda. Students are directly involved not only in the program planning and invitations of speakers, but take leadership in the execution of the event, especially during opportunities that allow Trainees to engage with outside invitees. PBHS is committed to maintaining our community of scientists who support each other in their research and professional development. While program members proactively provide this at the lab-level and our program contributes at the institution-level, activities such as our annual symposium/retreat additionally allow Trainees to expand their individual professional networks. The deeper and more extensive these networks become, the easier it is for students to rebuild new communities as they make professional transitions. To ease these transitions, it is important for students to explore and develop their professional network not just at MSU, but at institutions across the world.