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A great “IDEA” for NatSci graduate students

By Mollie Newman

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Finding time away from research and teaching can be daunting for graduate students and faculty. Which is why last fall, after conversations with many graduate students, Amy Ralston associate dean of graduate studies for the Michigan State University College of Natural Science (NatSci), decided to create the Great IDEA Fellowship Program to foster greater inclusivity and promote IDEA efforts in STEM. The program incentivizes graduate students and their mentors to spend some time away from their research to focus on inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility, or IDEA, initiatives and projects.

Great IDEA Fellowship Program logo. Stacked words with a lightbulb inside the letter "a" to signify idea.

The Great IDEA Fellowship Program was created to foster greater inclusivity and promote IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility) efforts in STEM. Credit: Andrew Ward

“Graduate students engage in some of the most innovative outreach and are particularly effective in connecting with other students,” Ralston said. “This is why I want to give them the chance to lead our college in our efforts, rather than the other way around.”

IDEA work is central to NatSci’s core values of inclusiveness, innovation, openness and professionalism. NatSci’s mission is to use discovery, innovation and collective ingenuity to advance knowledge across the natural sciences. Through equitable, inclusive practices in research, education, and service, NatSci empowers students, staff and faculty to solve challenges in a complex and rapidly changing world.

Applications for the inaugural cohort of Great IDEA Fellows were sent out last fall, and seven graduate student-mentor pairs were selected for the Spring 2023 semester:

  • Brooke Jeffery (mentor: Julia Ganz, assistant professor), integrative biology
  • Konika Konika (mentor: Jetze Tepe, professor), chemistry
  • Heidi Krauss (mentor: Tyrone Rooney, professor), earth and environmental sciences
  • Sarah E. Manski (mentor: Jennifer Green, associate professor and Frederi Viens, professor), statistics
  • Adriana Lorell Ponton-Almodovar (mentor: Sachi Horibata, assistant professor), pharmacology and toxicology
  • Andrea Saavedra (mentor: Julie Libarkin, professor), earth and environmental sciences
  • Luke Seaton (mentor: Robert Bell, associate professor), mathematics

"The Graduate School is delighted that Professor Ralston has developed and launched the Great IDEA Fellowship Program," said Pero Dagbovie, MSU associate provost for graduate and postdoctoral studies and dean of the Graduate School. "This innovative initiative is in alignment with the MSU DEI Report and Plan, the MSU 2030 Strategic Plan, and the Graduate School's goal of providing programs to support and enhance diversity. We look forward to witnessing the growth of this exciting program and collaborating with the College of Natural Science." 

Before this fellowship existed, there was no formal way to encourage IDEA efforts in NatSci’s graduate school, which left them at risk of diminishing or disappearing altogether.

“Faculty sometimes do not or cannot prioritize their students’ commitments outside of their research projects,” Ralston said. “This award is intended to lower this barrier by providing funding for our top NatSci graduate students to pursue research and a project to increase STEM inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility at MSU.”

Student-mentor pairs who focus a significant portion of their time on advancing IDEA at MSU or the broader scientific community, are encouraged to apply; priority is given to pairs with prior successful IDEA work experience. Projects that are considered include work with Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT) and Women and Minorities in the Physical Sciences (WaMPS), promoting work in antiracism, recruitment and retention of people from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM, workplace accessibility, mental health/wellness, LGBTQIA+, and student parents, among others.

For their commitment, fellows are awarded a semester of a graduate student stipend, tuition, and fees. Each student-mentor pair is asked to give 25 percent of their time to an IDEA project and 75 percent to their research or coursework. In addition, they attend weekly meetings about their IDEA goals, biweekly meetings with the whole IDEA cohort, promote their work through NatSci communications, prepare a progress report, and give a final presentation to the MSU community.

Members of the first cohort of IDEA Fellows will feature their IDEA projects and progress in a poster session on Wednesday April 26, 11 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. in the BPS Atrium. Members of the Summer IDEA Fellows cohort will be announced soon.

Banner image: NatSci Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Great IDEA Fellowship Program creator Amy Ralston (left) poses with the 2023 inaugural cohort of Great IDEA Fellows (L to R): Luke Seaton, Andrea Saavedra, Heidi Krauss, Konika Konika, Sarah Manski, Adriana Ponton-Almodovar and Brooke Jeffery. Credit: Andrew Ward