Undergraduate Diversity at Evolution 2017

This post is written by Hollie Heape and MSU postdoc Alexa Warwick 

Fig. 1. UDE 2017 workshop and discussion panel

As an undergraduate research assistant through BEACON at Michigan State University, I was afforded the opportunity to study the efficacy of a travel award program to increase diversity in evolutionary science. In order to share some preliminary results of this study I spent five days at the annual Evolution Conference in Portland, Oregon, coincidentally my hometown. Here I attended both talks and poster presentations on a myriad of topics ranging from computational evolutionary biology methods all the way to queen ant aggression.

The conference began with a special undergraduate professional development workshop where undergraduate students gained insight and advice on various evolutionary biology career pathways (Fig. 1). I was fortunate enough to speak one-on-one with the presenters and gain a deeper understanding of their research. Each undergraduate student could also opt to be paired with two specialized mentors in the field the student showed an interest. Through this pairing, the students were able to create a personal connection with their mentor by spending time getting to know each other throughout the five days of the conference.

Fig. 2. Hollie presenting her poster at Evolution 2017

On the fourth evening of the conference, I presented a poster (Fig. 2) of my research in which I evaluated the efficacy of the Undergraduate Diversity at Evolution (UDE) Conference Travel Award program. This program has been running almost every year* since 2001 with the goal of increasing diversity in the evolutionary sciences (Fig. 3). This travel award solicits applicants around February each year and awards are made in late March or early April to undergraduates specifically chosen to diversify the field (see more at beacon-center.org/ude). In order to collect data from program alumni, an online survey was created and then sent to all applicants and awardees of the program since 2001. A total of 427 requests were sent out to undergrad awardees, applicants, and attendees, including emails to some current and/or past student advisors, as needed. So far we have received 150 completed responses**, which included 92 awardees (36% of the total) and 58 non-awardees (Fig. 4). As might be expected, most responses (84%) were from the most recent conference years (2010–2016). Some preliminary results are summarized below, or you can view the presented poster here.

Fig. 3. UDE 2017 travel awardees and some of their mentors

Most respondents are currently in academia, and the majority are still students. More females than males responded, although this proportion was representative of the applicant pool. Of the awardees who responded, almost half (43%) self-reported their ethnicity/race as white. This result raises a possible concern as the main focus of the travel award program is to increase the diversity within evolutionary sciences. However, this value was lower than the percentage of white non-awardees who responded (55%). Because ethnicity/race is not requested as part of the application we cannot determine what the expected response proportion would be. In addition, ethnic/racial diversity is not the only factor of diversity that is considered during the selection process, so this result does not necessarily indicate an issue.

Fig. 4. Summary of UDE alumni survey responses to date

When comparing the responses regarding receipt of awards in evolutionary science, 40% of UDE awardees had at least one other award whereas only 12% of non-awardees did. Although awardees reported more often than non-awardees that the field of evolution was very important their current position, the average ranking of importance was not significantly different. Of the respondents who attended at least one Evolution meeting, 88% made at least one new contact and 72% reported following up with at least one of these contacts within six months. Finally, 88% of awardees said they would not have been able to attend the conference without the UDE travel award. When asked what the impact of their participation was on their career success or path, the top two categories in terms of number of responses were: (1) networking with students and professionals and (2) reinforcing their career path in science and/or going to graduate school. For many it was also their first time attending/presenting at a scientific conference. Two example responses:

“The experience was transformative. I really connected with my mentor and he introduced me to lots of different scientists, helping me feel really engaged with the Evolution community. I also found presenting a poster at Evolution very empowering and I received validation early on that I am competitive enough to be a research scientist. It actually inspired me to pursue a PhD in Evolution.”

“My participation at UDE really helped understand the importance of studying Biology from an evolutionary perspective. In fact, it solidified my commitment to the field regardless of the profession I end up choosing.”

Even those who did not continue in the field still found it impactful in making decisions on their future careers, such as learning they didn’t want to continue in academia or reinforcing their goal in pursuing medicine. Approximately seven responses indicated little to no impact for a variety of reasons, and three said it was moderately impactful but they had already been accepted into a Ph.D. program. I will continue to analyze these data, along with my mentor, Dr. Alexa Warwick, in preparation for publication.

For me, my favorite part of the conference was the last night at the Oregon Zoo for the “super social.” During this event, I caught up with my fellow undergraduate friends and was even able to network while enjoying the beautiful backdrop of the zoo animals. The few days at Evolution 2017 were some of both the fast-paced, non-stop, and rewarding days of my undergraduate career. I vastly expanded my knowledge of evolutionary biology, while also gaining life long friends.

In terms of impact on my future career, I am currently heading into my third year at Michigan State with a major in Animal Science with hopes to attend Veterinary School in the near future, specializing in zoo animals. This research project was the first of my undergraduate career, and Evolution 2017 was the first professional conference at which I attended and presented. The networking opportunities and contacts I made at this conference far exceeded my expectations. Although not directly focusing on the veterinary profession, this conference allowed me the opportunity to talk to professionals who get the opportunity working to study species they love, which is something with which I can relate. My end professional goal is to work on rehabilitating species that are facing extinction in the wild, thus connecting my loves for veterinary medicine and ecology/evolution.

Funding for this project was provided by a BEACON budget request.


*The Undergraduate Diversity at Evolution (UDE) Program will NOT be held as part of the Evolution 2018 meetings because it is a joint international meeting in Montpellier, France: http://evolutionmontpellier2018.org/. However, the program WILL continue in 2019 in Providence, RI, June 21-25. The application will be available by February 2019 at beacon-center.org/ude.

**If you were an undergraduate who applied for or received funding through the UDE program between 2001–2014, we would still welcome your feedback! Please email Dr. Alexa Warwick (awarwick@msu.edu) to receive a link for the survey (plus a $10 Amazon gift card as a thank you for your completed responses!).

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