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Expanding the WAVE Pipeline

"WAVE is really the reason I am a graduate student at Caltech," says Rebekah Loving. "It gave me confidence and introduced me to a place where I knew I could be successful."

Loving, a second-year graduate student in biology, is referring to the WAVE Fellows program, a Caltech initiative begun in 2015 that aims to foster diversity at the Institute by increasing the participation of underrepresented students in science and engineering doctoral programs and to make Caltech's graduate programs more visible and accessible to students not traditionally exposed to the Institute.

With the recent support of several Institute research centers, Caltech is now planning to double the number of students it hosts in the program next summer and beyond. This increase, from 25 to 50 students each summer, will be made possible by direct funding from campus research centers, divisions, and institutes committed to the effort.

"There is currently a lack of diversity in Caltech's graduate student population," says David Anderson, the Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology, Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience Leadership Chair, and director of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience. The Chen Institute has committed to support five WAVE fellows. "The WAVE program is a proven way to increase the pool of talented undergraduates from underrepresented groups applying to our PhD programs. The Chen Institute is enthusiastic about supporting this important initiative."

The expansion of WAVE, says Candace Rypisi, director of Student-Faculty Programs (SFP), is a direct result of the efforts of the Black Scientists and Engineers of Caltech (BSEC), a group led by graduate students that works to provide support and build community for Black/African American students and postdocs. In bringing attention to the issues around representation in STEM of Black students and others who identify with traditionally underrepresented communities, BSEC specifically highlighted the WAVE program as an important resource in building a pipeline for recruitment of those groups into graduate programs. 

"One of the things that makes WAVE different from other programs," says Loving, who is one of the BSEC members who pushed for the expansion of the fellowship program, "is that it's targeted more toward people who are less certain or less exposed to the academic path. They come from backgrounds where they didn't necessarily know about Caltech when they applied to an undergraduate school, and maybe they didn't know that graduate school was an option."

Students in WAVE participate in a 10-week summer program during which they conduct research under the guidance of a Caltech faculty member. They also receive support from Caltech graduate students who counsel them on other issues they might face in a graduate program, such as experiencing impostor syndrome and negotiating lab dynamics. Weekly meetings with SFP staff and an academic and professional development workshop series put together especially for WAVE fellows, along with social and cultural activities, complete the experience.

As it moves to expand the program, SFP is also boosting its recruitment efforts, hosting virtual booths at several key recruitment fairs and devoting the month of November to online thematic information sessions for specific research areas, including sustainability, nanotechnology, and neuroscience. The application process has been revamped, too, says Rypisi, to make it easier to identify the labs in which students could be placed.

With the additional infusion of campus support, SFP is able to strengthen the student financial aid package to make it more competitive with other schools and programs, Rypisi says. Now, in addition to the traditional base stipend that summer research fellows receive, the WAVE fellows will have their airfare to and from campus covered and will be offered a $2,000 supplement to apply toward on-campus housing.

"We normally don't open the application process up until November," says Rypisi, "but we opened everything up on October 1 this year because our campus partners were so excited to get started."

Loving, for her part, says she was "shocked and overjoyed" when she found out that the Institute was committing more funding to WAVE and expanding the number of students who could participate. WAVE was critical to her own decision to pursue a graduate degree at Caltech, says Loving, who is pictured above with her WAVE faculty mentor Lior Pachter, Bren Professor of Computational Biology and Computing and Mathematical Sciences.

"When I came here to do WAVE, I was still considering going the medical route and applying to MD/PhD programs. During that summer, I did research that I loved more than any other research I had done before, and that made me see what I wanted to do in a completely different way and gave me more confidence about being successful in a different area."

In addition to clarifying her education and career goals, WAVE provided Loving with a sense of community. "The people I met through WAVE are a big part of my scientific as well as my friend community," she says. "That is really helpful in pushing forward through the barriers that we experience."

For the Institute, the success of the WAVE program is part of a broader effort to increase diversity on campus. More than 90 percent of WAVE participants go on to graduate school, says Rypisi. "The number of those students who apply to Caltech for grad school is increasing. The number who get in, and those who end up coming, is increasing. But there is still a gap between each of those steps. We hope that gap continues to close as we get better and better at refining our recruitment and admissions processes."

The campus research centers, institutes, and divisions that have supported the expansion of WAVE—the Kavli Nanoscience Institute, the Resnick Sustainability Institute (RSI), the Center for Environmental Microbial Interactions, Information Science & Technology, the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Chen Institute—are clear about the benefits that will ensue for their own work.

"RSI research relies on a steady stream of extremely smart, creative, and highly motivated students," says Jonas Peters, Bren Professor of Chemistry and director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute, which has committed to funding 15 fellowships. "Our investment in the WAVE program opens us to the fullest pool of talent out there, enabling our campus to recruit and train young scientists and engineers truly passionate about sustainability. We see WAVE as win-win-win!"

Written by Judy Hill

Caltech Communications