When Stacy Godfreey-Igwe was in the 5th grade, she designed a poster for a class presentation showing a world in which one half was in the present, and it was green and lush, while the other half, 50 years into the future, was dark and black.
“I knew then that I wanted to save the world but at the time I didn’t know how,” she said.
Godfreey-Igwe is now doing just that. A rising senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from Richardson, Texas, she spent the summer of 2020 doing virtual research on the environment — in particular, on biodegradable polymers — as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). SURF is a Stanford School of Engineering program designed for students who are interested in graduate studies and academic careers, and are from communities that are systemically minoritized in STEM, maybe first in their family to pursue an advanced degree, or from environments with limited access to research university programs. The SURF program aims to build community, explore identity formation and create a cohort of graduate students who will go on to become academic and industry leaders who can promote much-needed diversity within the fields of engineering and science.
“Back in March I found out that I was accepted to the Stanford SURF program the same day MIT told us to leave campus,” said Godfreey-Igwe. “Up until that point, I hadn’t had my summer plans figured out because other programs were being canceled, left and right.”
In any other year, she would have been one of 20 undergraduate scholars from institutions around the world invited to take part in an eight-week residential program at Stanford. SURF scholars would have typically conducted research in engineering labs while attending professional development workshops and exploring the Stanford campus in an immersive experience meant to demystify the graduate school admissions process and allow participants to identify as future leaders in engineering. Due to COVID-19, this year’s SURF program had to move swiftly to an all-remote format.
“SURF took some shocks. Over half our labs had to opt out of hosting because of the experimental nature of their research,” said Ngoc Tran, who oversees SURF as the Assistant Director of Graduate Community, Inclusion and Outreach at Stanford Engineering.
Recognizing the importance of academic continuity for the professional development and future goals of students invited to SURF, the Equity and Inclusion Initiatives team led the way in recreating the program in an all-remote format.
“The impact of the public health crisis and anti-Black racism extends within and outside the walls of academia. Both threaten the safety, well-being and security of many lives while causing further systemic trauma and suffering to already marginalized groups, many of whom our scholars identify with and are close to,” Tran said.
“We’re privileged to have the resources available to even consider moving forward with the program when people are losing so much more. By continuing with the program, we had hopes of honoring the commitment these students made to their development, goals and communities.”
Despite the challenges present from COVID-19, the program staff and faculty transitioned all workshops and research projects online. Tran’s team was able to place all 20 scholars in labs that matched their interests. In an ordinary, on-campus SURF experience, each scholar is typically paired with a current graduate student as a part of the mentorship component. This year’s commitment doubled and the number of graduate students who volunteered as mentors was twice the size of the SURF cohort.
Jorge Meraz, a PhD student in civil and environmental engineering Professor Craig Criddle’s lab, was one such volunteer, serving as Godfreey-Igwe’s mentor. In March, Meraz began to transition the lab’s research to help Godfreey-Igwe study the computational aspects of how various microorganisms ferment sugars to spin out polymers called polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs, that might one day substitute for petrochemical plastics. “We had to restructure the program in ways that would interest the undergraduate scholars,” said Meraz.
The process included Meraz and Godfreey-Igwe getting to know each other in semiformal chats, and discussing scientific papers on concepts unfamiliar to her given her background in mechanical engineering at MIT. “We had weekly milestones and a live calendar that we updated to say we talked about this, and what to do that next week,” Meraz said. “We tried to limit our Zoom face time to maybe once or twice a week but kept an open line of communication through Slack.”
Godfreey-Igwe said Meraz taught her a lot about how to approach research, and hopes to continue studying PHAs with him after SURF ends. Just as valuable — if not more so — were the experiences he shared about getting into grad school at Stanford that helped inform her own thinking. “The program completely blew me away, especially for it being online,” she said.
Outside of laboratory research, the SURF scholars participate in workshops that support their holistic development. One such event was titled “Wellness, Imposter Syndrome and the Trailblazer Experience,” led by Meag-gan Ann O’Reilly, staff psychologist and outreach, equity and inclusion program coordinator with Stanford’s Vaden Health Center.
She discussed social identity groups and the pressures felt by students who blaze trails for their families. Student questions revealed how these aspiring scientists can seem caught between the academic milieu in which they are not yet at home and the communities they came from.
SURF scholar Ana Beatriz Bonfim, a native of Brazil now studying biochemistry at Barnard College in New York, said that as the first person in her family and high school to attend a prestigious school in the United States, she comes home feeling pressured to pretend that everything is perfect and living in New York is a dream. “They can’t understand the difficulty of studying abroad,” Bonfim said. “They’re saying, ‘Like, what could be so hard?’”
Though proud of having created a virtual program for the COVID-19 emergency, Tran’s team yearns for the days when student fellows might once again do experiments in the lab. Ana de la Fuente Duran enjoyed such an experience when she worked with materials science Professor Will Chueh during SURF 2018. Coming from a Mexican immigrant background, de la Fuente Duran harbored the doubts common to so many students from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM fields. Her academic training at Penn State added another hurdle: She had spent the prior two years working with 2D materials, a class of metals that pull apart like sheets in a ream of paper. Chueh’s lab studied batteries. De la Fuente Duran had to do an intellectual pivot into what was, to her, the terra incognita of electrochemistry.
“It was a big learning curve, but everybody in the group was extremely helpful and very, very kind,” said de la Fuente Duran, who returned to Penn State thinking: “I am so capable. I can learn things that are different. I’m flexible, I’m adaptable. I can survive in a place like Stanford.”
Indeed, de la Fuente Duran is a Stanford SURF success story because when she applied to grad schools after finishing at Penn State and was accepted everywhere, she chose to return to the Farm and to Chueh’s lab, where she got a head start on her first year in grad school through the Summer First program. This program would have been on campus but also went virtual this year because of the pandemic.
Chueh, who has mentored high school and college students since joining Stanford in 2012, said the steady flow of inquisitive minds from varied backgrounds recharges the battery that powers his lab: curiosity.
“Working with a diverse group of students, postdocs, staff and faculty fuels your creativity and deepens the impact of the research that you do,” Chueh said. “Creativity, diversity and inclusion come hand in hand.”