Improving mentoring to increase inclusion in science

Meet Diana Azurdia, director for recruitment and inclusion for UCLA's Graduate Programs in Bioscience
Courtney Chandler
Oct. 8, 2021

Diana Azurdia knows firsthand how important mentorship can be in science. She was the first in her family to attend college, and her mentors helped her navigate academia and encouraged her to pursue her Ph.D. “I know that mentorship can make or break an experience for a graduate student,” Azurdia said.

As director for recruitment and inclusion for UCLA's Graduate Programs in Bioscience, Azurdia works to attract, retain and promote graduate students. That requires working with students and faculty.

Courtesy of Diana Azurdia
Diana Azurdia serves as a master facilitator for the Center for Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research, an organization that delivers mentor-related training to universities across the U.S. She is also a previous board member for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science and is involved in the organization's efforts to achieve diversity in STEM.

For first-year graduate students, she runs workshops that support them during their transition to graduate school. Some of the topics she engages the students in include how to build resilience, how to deal with cognitive distortions (such as imposter syndrome), how to give and receive feedback, and how to set expectations and boundaries with mentors.

For faculty, she runs trainings on best practices for research mentorship. Specifically, she covers tools for aligning expectations, fostering independence in mentees, and promoting equity and inclusion.

“A lot of faculty learned mentoring from their own experiences and then try to use the same mentoring approaches,” she said. “It’s rare that they’re awarded the time and space to sit down and think about their mentoring strategies.”

She said she thinks the work has been impactful but that there’s still much to do. As a result, she has helped develop a campuswide initiative to incentivize research mentor training.

Azurdia has been in her current role for about seven years now, but it was a novel position at the time she started. Since then, more universities have started creating similar roles, which she said is essential to increasing diversity and inclusion for graduate students.

“I really enjoy that I get to do the work that makes a difference,” she said. “(UCLA Biosciences) is an environment where people are really looking at themselves, especially in the face of recent social uprisings, and doing the work around antiracism and being inclusive.”

Seeing science as a lifelong career

It was a high school chemistry class taught by a particularly engaging teacher that got Azurdia interested in a college education in science. She didn’t have much guidance from family, she said, so this teacher also helped her prepare her undergraduate applications.

“I didn’t come from a family where there was a language for college, so there weren’t conversations about me going,” she said. “It was really scary, but I also thought I owed it to myself to see how far I could go, and I saw science as a career I could anchor myself in and enjoy.”

She eventually decided on California State University in Los Angeles, which she described as a Hispanic-serving institution and primarily a commuter school. After graduating with a degree in biochemistry, Azurdia chose UCLA as her Ph.D. institution because her family was nearby. She wanted to be present and serve as a role model for her three younger brothers.

She said the transition from her predominantly undergraduate college to UCLA, a research-intensive institution, was a shock. "I came from a green place. I didn’t know how to engage with faculty or how to communicate with them or have expectations,” she said.

Azurdia started out in the lab of a principal investigator she described as really successful, but she had a hard time existing in that space. The expectations were astronomical, she said, and she eventually realized that she and the PI weren’t going to be a long-term match. After passing her qualifying exams in her second year, she moved to a lab in another department and changed her research focus from protein work to RNA work.

“My new PI was very hands off. He had the attitude that you’re an adult and you manage your life,” Azurdia said. “I didn’t understand that I should meet with him regularly.”

When she did meet with him, she said, she found his guidance useful but didn’t always get the answers or help she needed for troubleshooting projects. She said that she struggled with not having someone with whom to deeply think through their research problems.

Azurdia completed her Ph.D. after eight years and said she felt completely demoralized by the experience. After a rewarding postdoc in cancer biology at UCLA, she knew didn’t want to do bench research anymore and instead decided to dedicate her career to a different kind of research.

Now, she examines student outcomes using a number of metrics to identify if there are hidden disparities or inequalities in Ph.D. programs, with the long-term goal of addressing disparities through interventions. She leads two research teams asking questions about STEM higher education in addition to supporting students and training faculty to be effective mentors.

Making inclusion a priority

Azurdia credits many of the students she works with as leading the charge to create a more inclusive scientific community.

“This generation of students is much more social justice-minded and aware of the injustices some may face, even if they don’t face them themselves,” she said.

For students who don't see themselves represented in science or on their campus, Azurdia recommends reaching out to people who have been supportive in the past and reinforcing those positive connections. Also, she said, find spaces where you see yourself excelling, even if that isn’t at your institution.

She recommends taking advantage of the communities created by professional societies, such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. When she was an undergrad, she attended a SACNAS conference. “I saw all of these BIPOC scientists, some wearing their regalia, and it was such a celebration of science and culture,” she said. “I knew at that point it was a place for me and the vehicle where I found the mentorship and community I needed.”

Other societies include the National Society of Black Engineers, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the National Association for Women in Science.

“I really enjoy this work and feel like this is where I can make the most impact by utilizing my own experiences with mentorship,” she said. “By making room for and celebrating people’s identities and differences, we can go a long way to making everyone feel included.”

She added: “It may sound cliché, but diverse teams do better science. Having scientists from diverse backgrounds means they’re thinking about innovations for their communities, and those communities aren’t being ignored.”

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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