Students walking on campusThe UW Department of Atmospheric Sciences strives to create an inclusive and welcoming environment where students, staff and faculty are supported and set up for success. Department Chair Cecilia Bitz has prioritized Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, citing her personal work history as a motivator to create an equitable environment.

“Diversity is so important to me personally because when I started my career, women were definitely a minority,” she said. “I saw firsthand how important it is to have leaders and more senior people in the department that I am able to identify with. It’s hard to persevere if you don’t see a path for yourself.”

The department has two formal groups working on DEI: the grassroots, graduate student-led Diversity and Inclusion Group (DIG), and the department’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee. DIG serves as a forum for organizing DEI efforts within Atmospheric Sciences, is open to everyone in the department, allows participants to bring their ideas and add them to the meeting agenda. This two-committee system allows for more people to be involved in brainstorming and planning DEI efforts through DIG, while the EDI Committee takes on more formal activities or those that require a faculty lead.

“This system gets more people involved, especially students, and I like that it allows for that,” said EDI Committee Chair Abby Swann. “I think it’s valuable to invite everyone to collect ideas at the volunteer-based level, then formalize them at the committee level. It’s important to allow room for grassroots, self-motivated ideas, as well as for the department to put faculty time into these ideas.”

Grassroot ideas

A major project that started within DIG was the creation of a diversity class, now in its second year. This class features an intense study of racism in the environmental sciences, and allows students to participate in discussions about how racism pervades the field today in terms of where people live in cities, air quality maps, green spaces, and other ways people are historically oppressed based on race.

“I’ve seen a lot of the individual projects from DIG come to fruition, but I don’t see these as the ultimate goal, which is to see more underrepresented people in STEM,” said DIG leader and atmospheric sciences PhD student Travis Aerenson. “However, I do think we are successfully implementing projects that we hope will get us to our goal.”

Department-level projects

To enable fair consideration of more diverse applicants, the Committee worked jointly with the graduate program chair to restructure the department’s graduate admissions process to offer a more holistic view of the applicant. After attending a training session led by the UW Graduate School, the department engaged in discussions about what they were looking for in incoming students. Thinking through the characteristics of successful Atmospheric Sciences graduate students, the committee reworked both the prompt and the grading rubric to seek out applicants with those characteristics. All faculty now participate in reviewing applications, with an eye towards seeking out potential for success in the program outside of the grades and test scores that have historically excluded underrepresented groups.

The biggest project the committee is currently working on is creating a strategic plan for DEI activities. The committee wanted to create a record of ideas brainstormed in DIG so that they can be worked on over a longer time frame. Graduate students are with the department for a relatively short amount of time, so the committee wants to create an official system to retain these ideas after grad students leave.

“I think the most unique thing about our department is the two DEI groups and the collaborative community,” said Bitz. “I cherish the fact that everyone works together on issues of diversity, which is the only way we can be successful in our efforts. I’m proud to say we’re on the path to doing just that.”