RHIC/AGS Users' Meeting Emphasizes Diverse Workforce Opportunities

Supporting scientists and students from underrepresented communities is a top priority for the nuclear physics field

Photo of students in front of Berkner Hall enlarge

Students from the first cohort of the BNL-MSI Fellowship Program for Research Excellence and Preparation in Nuclear Physics, part of the DOE NP Traineeship pilot program, during a Brookhaven Lab visit last summer.

Many of the nuclear physicists tuning in to the 2022 Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) & AGS (Alternating Gradient Synchrotron) Users’ Meeting participated in a half-day workshop on June 8 dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and workforce development in the nuclear physics community. This year’s users’ meeting was hosted virtually by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, where RHIC, a DOE Office of Science user facility for nuclear physics research, is located.

The June 8 DEI session brought together scientists who are enthusiastic about ensuring the community’s role in sustaining a pipeline of researchers from underrepresented communities, including students and faculty at minority serving institutions (MSIs) and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—particularly as RHIC transitions to the future Electron-Ion Collider (EIC).

“As we go into the future from RHIC to EIC, we are providing a great opportunity for discovery science and also for cultivating and contributing to the diverse workforce development,” said Haiyan Gao, Brookhaven Lab’s Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear and Particle Physics. “EIC has a long-term future, so we are looking at the opportunity to collaborate with HBCUs and MSIs to establish joint faculty positions.”

Nuclear physics traineeship programs, internships, and student research programs supported by the DOE Office of Science are part of current efforts that place DEI as a core value, Gao said.

“I heard one of the panelists praise our scientists for being passionate mentors,” she noted. “I have been here for a little bit over a year, and I am very happy and very inspired and encouraged by all the commitment and passion not just [from our] scientists [but] everybody at BNL.”

The workshop was organized by Stacyann Nelson of Howard University, a member of RHIC’s PHENIX and sPHENIX collaborations, and Agnieszka Sorensen of the University of Washington, a theorist working on physics probed by the RHIC Beam Energy Scan. Their aim was to provide participants with practical advice on increasing diversity. 

“It was important for us to highlight solutions and available resources,” Sorensen said. “We also wanted to showcase the amazing work that some in our community are already doing, and learn from their expertise. Reusing tried-and-tested approaches both lowers the threshold for starting a new effort and increases its chances of success,” she said. 

Nelson emphasized the importance of making people aware of various recruitment strategies that they can incorporate into their search for finding and accommodating underrepresented minority students in their labs or groups.

“We need to remember that the pipeline really starts at the K-12 level, and that it needs to be sustained,” she said. “Only then will the undergraduate and eventually graduate levels see a significant number of persons of color entering the field.”

Definitions and situational assessments first

To kick off the workshop, meeting-goers heard DEI definitions from Sam McKagan, the editorial director of Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3)—a collaboration between the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers.

The EP3 Guide defines diversity as recruiting people from marginalized groups and retaining them so that all levels of physics are representative of the range of people who could be physicists. Inclusion is creating an environment that supports everyone in feeling welcome.

Equity, which the EP3 guide marks as the most important piece of DEI, is ensuring that everyone has what they need to thrive. This requires considering the ways some groups have been and continue to be marginalized in physics and recognizing and challenging the structural and cultural barriers to full participation.

She emphasized the importance of organizations analyzing their current DEI culture, leaders building trust and partnering with people from marginalized groups, and addressing issues of equity and inclusion before attempting to increase diversity.

Focus on fixing the environment, not the marginalized person, McKagan said.

Christine Nattrass, associate professor in relativistic heavy ion physics at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and outgoing chair of the RHIC & AGS Users’ Executive Committee, collected data to conduct just that kind of situational analysis. She presented demographic data from major physics conferences that illustrated the underrepresentation of women physicists as speakers.

“We can see a problem, but we need some data to back it up to get some change,” Nattrass said.

In general, women should make up 23 percent of speakers to reflect their representation among physicists in the heavy-ion collision field, Nattrass said. While the percent of female speakers has increased in both theory and experimental physics over time, the numbers don’t quite make that goal, the data show.

“Women are consistently underrepresented among experimental talks,” Nattrass said. “The statistics are worse for theorists because there are fewer theorists.”

Women are also less likely to be offered high-profile parallel session talks —"what makes or breaks whether you get to stay in the field,” Nattrass said. Instead they often share their research in lower-visibility poster sessions.

Nattrass suggested using a database of speakers and instituting a standing body to ensure standards and transparency as possible ideas for conference organizers to consider towards equitable representation.

Increasing opportunities can impact diversity

Fixing the problem of underrepresentation in the nuclear physics community is a top priority for the DOE Office of Science, Office of Nuclear Physics (NP), said Paul Sorensen, NP program manager for Fundamental Symmetries. The current nuclear physics community doesn’t reflect the gender, racial, and ethnic diversity of the U.S. population, he said.

“If we continue to exclude large swaths of the U.S. population, we are not going to be competitive,” Sorensen said. “This really hinders productivity, creates a huge challenge for retention and is a negative outcome in its own right.”.

A 2021 pilot program for Research Traineeships to Broaden and Diversify Nuclear Physics by the DOE NP program offers an example of the impact of partnering with members of marginalized groups. The program provides financial and mentoring support during the summer and academic year, allowing students time to get to know the nuclear physics community.

So far, the nationwide program has funded 110 trainees, 40 percent of whom identify as Hispanic and another 40 percent of whom identify as Black or African American. If half of those trainees go on to receive a PhD in nuclear physics, that would erase underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic nuclear physicists receiving such degrees in that year, Sorensen said.

That’s an attainable goal to try to solve this societal problem, Sorensen said.

“We are part of society,” he said. “It’s not beyond our reach to make a difference.”

Next steps for the trainee program include ensuring that it’s sustainable, encourages retention, and builds up capabilities at MSIs, including engaging MSIs in joint research ventures beyond student recruitment, Sorensen said.

Photo of students on PHENIX, STAR tours

Trainees visited PHENIX and STAR at Brookhaven Lab last summer.

Building trust with underrepresented communities is another important step. As an example, Astrid Morreale, DOE’s NP program manager for nuclear theory, described specific barriers and strategies for reaching out to indigenous and First Nation students, who comprise less than 1 percent of both the U.S. undergraduate and graduate student population.

Organizations that want to provide STEM opportunities for indigenous and First Nation students need to do their research to understand students’ backgrounds and find an indigenous ally as a point of contact, Morreale advised.

“This requires dedication and persistence, and it may take years before you build up that trust,” she said.

In describing the existing trust barrier, Morreale recalled the troubled legacy of forcible placement of indigenous and Native American children into schools operated by government and religious organizations in the 19th century. She suggested teaming up with minority serving institutions (MSIs) that serve indigenous students, many of which are community or one-year colleges, which currently may not offer physics courses and partnering with indigenous physicists who currently act as allies and mentors. Professional organizations such as APS and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society also offer resources for reaching these communities.

Shared lessons in building a diverse nuclear physics pipeline

Noel Blackburn, Chief Diversity Officer at Brookhaven Lab, led a panel of researchers and educators from across the nuclear physics community who have a track record of mentoring students from underrepresented communities. Their programs reach all levels in physics classrooms, through research, and among early career scientists.

“We are all scientists and engineers, we are all in STEM, and we are problem solvers, more importantly,” Blackburn said. “Over the decades we haven’t solved the problem of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but I know we have the capabilities here to be able to solve these problems if we really try to be intentional and impactful.”

Panelists emphasized the need for science organizations to get out into their local communities to generate interest in nuclear physics and offer opportunities to students from diverse backgrounds.

“We noticed that talking to the teachers at schools in low-income communities, we were able to open up a boatload of very enthusiastic students that were triggered by the physics that we brought to the school,” said Frank Geurts, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University and a lead mentor of QuarkNet, a nonprofit collaboration that brings research into high school classrooms.

Students’ families should be part of outreach conversations and informed of all sorts of career pathways a physics education can lead to, even beyond academia and research, added Rene Bellwied, co-PI of Nuclear Science in Texas to Enhance and Advance Minorities (NuSTEAM). NuSTEAM is a collaborative effort between four Texas universities that offers undergraduates research experience through the DOE NP traineeship program. In many communities, it’s often parents who may need convincing, he said.

“There is a very tight-knit community that one should engage the student, but also at the level of their own support system at home and I think that’s important for us to realize,” he said. 

Panelists also stressed that mentorship programs should be equipped to ensure all participants feel included from the get-go. Re-emphasizing the importance of assessing your organization’s preparedness for welcoming students, Dina Myers Stroud, executive director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D Bridge Program, said, “Really dig into your data and look at who is applying and who is getting accepted. What do the students now say about the environment? Do they feel supported?”

Paul Guèye, an experimental physicist and chair of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) diversity advisory committee at Michigan State University, added that it’s important to hear directly from potential recruits before crafting a program. There’s a human element that shouldn’t be forgotten as mentors, Guèye and others noted.

“We can come up with the greatest program on the planet, but when we start implementing it, it doesn't work and one of the main reasons it would not work is because we didn’t go to the students and ask, ‘What do you want? What do you need?”’ Guèye said.

Those questions helped inform the beginnings of Physicists Inspiring the Next Generation: Exploring the Nuclear Matter (PING), a FRIB program that targets both pre-college and undergraduate students (who serve as mentors).

Once participants are included in a program, providing them with an up-close look at major research facilities, such as the RHIC or the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) at Brookhaven, makes a difference, panelists agreed.

There’s a “wow-moment” in providing that sort of access, said Mark Harvey, an associate professor of physics at Texas Southern University, who recalled marveling at the machinery at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory when he was an undergraduate at Virginia State University, a historically Black college.

Harvey recalled bringing several undergraduates to Brookhaven Lab to work on a research project at NSLS-II, some of whom went on to pursue STEM graduate degrees, so that they could have a similar experience.

“They saw this wonderful synchrotron light source, we got a chance to tour PHENIX, and that made a big impact,” Harvey said.

Members of the panel also shared ideas on how to build a sustainable pipeline, including by providing resources for professors and mentors at MSIs. Supporting the professors, not just the students, can help ensure that students don’t lose their drive to pursue research in nuclear physics when they return to school after a standard 10-week internship, said Brookhaven Lab scientist Mickey Chiu.

Chiu, co-PI of the DOE Nuclear Physics Research Traineeships (NPT) grant at Brookhaven, helps pair students with a Brookhaven scientist and a partner MSI university mentor on a cutting-edge nuclear physics research topic. A key feature is that it’s a one to two year-long chance to engage with students, he said, which really helps with keeping them engaged and supported on their path to graduate school or a future STEM career.

“If there’s more support at the universities, where [students and faculty] are supported to do research there, I think that would make a big difference to help to sustain that pipeline,” Chiu said.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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