“Illinois is committed to the goal of achieving diversity and excellence,” says Dr. Ellen Wang Althaus, director of Sloan University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM).
The Sloan UCEM at Illinois is one of the eight centers in the country funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. With a one-million-dollar, three-year grant, the Illinois UCEM was created to broaden participation and provide support for underrepresented minority graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. It provides activities designed to support students toward doctorate completion, such as professional development opportunities, mentoring, research opportunities, workshops, and seminars.
Outstanding candidates are nominated by Sloan-participating programs - eleven in the College of Engineering and seven in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It has successfully recruited 25 Sloan scholars across eight departments during its first and second year, and is on track to enroll more than 25 additional scholars in its third year.
Althaus is passionate about efforts to recruit, retain and advance historically underrepresented minority groups in higher education. Throughout her career, Althaus has demonstrated a strong commitment to student development and supporting her students in achieving their educational and career goals. She became involved in the challenge to increase the representation of women in STEM when she proposed and launched the Women in Chemistry Program in 2006. In addition to serving as the director of the Sloan UCEM at Illinois, Althaus is also the director of graduate diversity in the department of Chemistry.
“Sloan Scholars are amazing students who have the potential to become leaders in their field and potentially mentors for other minority students in the future,” says Althaus. "The most rewarding aspect of being director of the Sloan UCEM at Illinois is to get to know my students on a personal level and see them grow. I love that I have the opportunity of maintaining close, ongoing relationships with my students because it provides me with the ability to learn about their goals, their aspirations and to encourage them in their journey.”
One of these Sloan Scholars is Pedro David Bello-Maldonado, a doctoral student in Computer Science. Originally from the capital of Colombia, Bogotá, Bello-Maldonado made it his life goal at an early age to obtain a PhD in Computer Science in order to land his dream job in scientific computing at one of the fifteen national laboratories in the country.
Bello-Maldonado’s academic career has not been an easy one. He started his educational experience setting out to pursue a bachelors in Mechatronics, an interdisciplinary segment of engineering combining electrical engineering, computer engineering, and mechanical engineering, back home in Colombia. However, his senior year, his family relocated to the United States causing complications in the completion of his degree. He transferred to a university that did not offer a degree in Mechatronics, which would have backtracked him two years. So instead, he changed his course of study and set out to pursue a bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering. After completing both degrees, he ran into another obstacle: acceptance into a master’s program in computer science. In his first attempt, he faced rejection from his top prospects. However, Bello-Maldonado remained optimistic and took the year to gain professional experience. He was accepted into the computer science program at the University of Illinois the following year in 2014. He earned his master’s degree in computer science in 2016.
Now, Bello-Maldonado spends his time engaging in scientific computations. When describing what he does to his family, Bello-Maldonado describes it as, “solving math with computers.” In his field, he studies computational fluid dynamics, specifically simulating fluids using physical systems. To visualize what it is he does, Bello-Maldonado says, “Picture the airflow moving through a vehicle. I research different mathematical and computational methods to make the simulations in these cars faster and more accurate, which results in faster and more efficient dynamics in these cars. I do this using super computers. Using a super computer to calculate these simulations usually takes days or weeks; using a regular computer or laptop you find at home would take years.” Bello-Maldonado’s career goal has remained constant, to work at one of the fifteen national research laboratories in the United States as a research scientist or senior scientist.
For Bello-Maldonado, achieving a doctoral degree at the University of Illinois in one of the top computer science programs across the country would be problematic without the support from the Sloan UCEM. “Without being part of this community, I would not have realized the importance and need to provide support for underrepresented minority doctoral students in STEM fields.”
One of the unique functions of the Sloan UCEM at Illinois is the professional development services it offers to its scholars. Sloan UCEM Scholars are required to attend the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring twice in their graduate career, where students have the opportunity to promote their research, establish new collaborations, and network with professionals in their field. According to Althaus, the conference is sponsored by the Compact for Faculty Diversity and is the largest gathering of doctoral minority scholars in the nation with over 1100 scholars in attendance at the four-day conference. The Sloan Foundation subsidizes all travel and registration expenses to assist Sloan Scholars in their professional development efforts.
In an interview with Bello-Maldonado, he spoke on his first experience at this conference: “It was a big experience. During my time at the conference, I had the pleasure of meeting doctoral scholars coming from similar, diverse backgrounds as myself. And to realize they are all rooting for my success, it was something special. I was so inspired after hearing many of the inspirational stories from some of the scholars in attendance, many of whom have had to experience difficult lives. It is motivational to listen to them speak on how they managed to come from nothing to earning a PhD. Now, they are doing what they love and becoming leaders in their field. It is an experience I will never forget.”
Aleczandria Skye Tiffany, a Sloan UCEM Scholar and doctoral student in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, works in the Harley Lab developing biomaterials to regenerate bone in large-scale defects. She also relays excitement in attending the Institute for Teaching and Mentoring this upcoming fall: “Attending the Institute for Teaching and Mentoring will give me the opportunity to learn from the professional experiences of other people of color in STEM and provide a road map of skills that I need to enter the academic sector, my current career goal.” Tiffany’s research focuses on growth factor incorporation to improve cellular responses during bone healing. Researchers in her industry have accomplished this on a smaller scale, but Aleczandria is determined to explore multiple methods of incorporation, retention of factors through the fabrication process, and the release of factors over time.
Another vital aspect the Sloan UCEM is what it calls “tri-pronged mentoring.” Tri-pronged mentoring provides scholars with resources for all aspects of their academic journey including a peer mentor within their department, a research mentor, and a Sloan academic advisor. Peer mentors are typically advanced graduate students who help new Sloan scholars become familiar with department culture as well as strategies and resources for success. Bello-Maldonado says he appreciates the many sources of mentorship because it holds him accountable and also acts as a support system for him. He says he has a close relationship with his peer mentor who helps him with course selection and better understanding the inner-workings of the department. “I really enjoy the informal relationship we have built as a result of meeting through the Sloan UCEM at Illinois tri-pronged mentorship program. We often meet informally to enjoy a day at the museum.”
Sloan also provides scholars with monthly professional development workshops and informational workshops. These workshops feature guest speakers to support Sloan cholars in developing knowledge and skills in a wide array of topics including presenting, communicating effectively, and managing money. During Sloan orientation, scholars learn about program expectations and requirements and also receive guidance on how to successfully manage scholarship funds.
The Sloan Showcase, an event during the Community of Scholars Visit, where scholars present a short research talk pitched toward a general audience, was also noteworthy. Scholars prepared for the Sloan Showcase by participating in a Research Live workshop and by giving a practice talk to other Sloan cohorts.
Bello-Maldonado found the Sloan Showcase motivating. “Communication is not my strong suit so this task is particularly valuable to me because it helps me hone in on skills I lack. It is challenging to present your research to multiple audiences in under three minutes because there are people who have no idea what it is you do. I am a very competitive person so I treat this workshop as a competition with myself and the other participating scholars. This workshop, and other workshops, do an exceptional job at helping scholars brand themselves, which is critical to their future success.”
As a student strongly committed to the development of his research, Bello-Maldonado says it is hard to ask for help. As a computer scientist, he has always been accustomed to working independently. However, being part of Sloan UCEM at Illinois has changed that through the creation of a collaborative and strong support system that always reminds him there are people there to help him succeed.
Tiffany agrees that Sloan affords a strong support system: “Sloan makes me feel welcomed and comfortable at this institution, and this has kept me emotionally competent in order to excel in my coursework. It can be very intimidating to see so few people of color in your department and institution, and at times I find myself searching for a sense of belonging. Sloan reminds me that I do belong here and it allows me to interact with other driven people of color. It’s an empowering and supportive environment.”
For more information about Sloan UCEM at Illinois, see: http://www.grad.illinois.edu/eep/sloan
For more information about the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, see: https://sloan.org/