The overarching goal of the NSF RCN project is to change the culture of plant sciences so that barriers to inclusion and a sense of belonging are identified and eliminated. One of our strategies is to build alliances with organizations that support early career scientists with marginalized identities, e.g., SACNAS and MANRRS.
Toward this end, the ROOT & SHOOT grant includes ten travel awards per year that are specifically designated for student/mentor pairs in which at least one is a member of SACNAS or MANRRS. The awards provide funds for the pair to attend one of the plant science conferences represented by the ROOT & SHOOT RCN (Botany / Plant Health / IS-MPMI Congress / Plant Biology / Maize Genetics Meeting).
In designing this program, we were greatly helped by insights provided through a discussion with Movement Consulting. They challenged us to think deeply about how to solicit and assess applications. For example, we had originally intended that the mentor be a faculty member, but with their guidance we reflected on the purpose of bringing student / mentor pairs. We concluded that this purpose is so that the student, who is unlikely to know many meeting attendees and might be attending a conference for the first time, has a dedicated, supportive ally on site with them. Therefore, it isn’t necessary that the mentor is a faculty member, but it is important that the student and the mentor have a clearly established supportive relationship. We also wanted to empower the students to select whom they would like to have accompany them to the conference.
Therefore, we elected to consider evidence of this supportive relationship as a core component of the selection process. We decided to use a single application that both the mentor and student contributed to transparently, with the student asked to describe their relationship with their mentor, and the mentor asked to describe their relationship with the student. These essays were profoundly helpful in helping us to identify the strong bonds of support that we hope will help to ensure that both people in the pair have a positive conference experience.
We were also challenged to consider what information the applicants were required to submit. Our initial impulse was to ask them to submit a CV, but recognized that many undergraduate students might not already have a CV, so was it really necessary?
Again, being challenged to think about the purpose of the program, we recognized that the goal of the program was to encourage interest in plant sciences in early career scientists, with the longer-term goal of increasing diversity within the discipline. Therefore, we elected not to ask them to submit a transcript or provide their GPA, but rather to submit an essay stating why they are interested in plant science, what they hoped to get out of the conference, and how attending the award would support their career objectives and professional development. Again, these essays were extremely helpful as we evaluated applications.
We did not assess need nor ask for information about need. Although we collected demographic information, it (and other identifying information) was stripped from the applications before we sent them to the reviewing team.
Applicants, awardees, and observations
We were delighted to receive 42 outstanding applications, although this made the final decision difficult. We received 14 applications for Plant Health, 10 for IS-MPMI, 8 for Plant Biology, 7 for Botany, and 3 for the Maize Genetics Conference.
We awarded 3 for travel to Plant Health, 2 for IS-MPMI, 2 for Plant Biology, 2 for Botany, and 2 for the Maize Genetics Conference.
The applications came from R1 institutions [30 total, 2 minority-serving institutions (MSIs)], R2 institutions (5 total, 3 MSI), and Masters Colleges (4 total, 1 MSI). The selected awardees were all at R1 institutions, none of which are MSIs. Institutional data were not a factor in the selection process, but we were somewhat disappointed that no MSI institutions were in the selected pool. We recognize that faculty and students at MSIs frequently have less access to funds to support travel to a conference. In the future, we will more actively encourage applications from MSI institutions and potentially reserve some awards for individuals at these institutions.
In the applicant pool, the mentors were mainly faculty members (30) with 2 postdocs, 5 PhD students, and 5 in other roles. In the selected pool, there were 6 faculty mentors, 1 postdoc, and 3 PhD students.
The evaluation process
Each application was read by each of the four members of the selection committee and the essays were numerically ranked using a predefined metric. Each evaluator ranked the applicants by score and the rankings combined. There were several who were in the “top ten” list of all four readers, and several who were in two or three readers’ top ten list. We collectively discussed these highest ranking applicants until we were satisfied with the selected candidates. It should be noted that we universally felt that the quality of the applications was extraordinary and we fervently wished that we had many more travel awards to dispense.
See our list of awardees here.
Demographic data of applicant pool
Why collect demographic data?
Because the goal of the ROOT & SHOOT award is to change the culture of plant sciences so that barriers to inclusion and a sense of belonging are identified and eliminated. As this travel award in particular focused on researchers who are members of organizations that support people historically underrepresented in science, we decided to collect demographic data as a way to track the impact of the communications and program.
What kind of data to collect?
We elected to use the demographic survey questions that were developed by the Royal Society of Chemistry. We made it clear that answering the questions was entirely optional.
We asked two questions.
How do you identify your gender? If you would prefer to self-describe, please write in using the “other” option.
- Non-binary or gender-diverse
- Prefer not to disclose
How would you identify yourself in terms of race? Please select ALL the groups that apply to you:
- Asian or Pacific Islander (API)
- Hispanic or Latino/a/x
- Indigenous (e.g. North American Indian Navajo, South American Indian Quechua, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander)
- Middle Eastern or North African (MENA)
- Prefer not to disclose
The aggregated data from the applicant pool is shown below. Both the student and mentor pool are predominantly women. Interestingly, but not surprisingly considering the racial profile of science faculty, nearly half the mentors are white, whereas the students who applied are more racially diverse.
Image 1: Gender of students and mentors
Image 2: Race/ethnicity of students and mentors
Further reflections and possible improvements in the process
Removing as much identifying information as possible from the applications prior to reviewing was very important. After we revealed the identities of the applicants and mentors we realized that we have friends and colleagues in both the awarded set and the unsuccessful set. We can be confident that our personal ties to these people had no impact on the selection.
Given that we had few applications from MSIs, in the future we will make an effort to connect with and encourage more applicants from these institutions. We may also elect to prioritize applicants from these institutions or reserve awards for people affiliated with these institutions.