UW-Madison GEM fellows from photo left to right: Hector Fuster, Patrick Cervantes, Margo Batie, Andrew Lambert, and Edward Westerband. Photo by Dakota Mace

UW–Madison welcomes GEM fellows to campus

by Jillian Slaight

The GEM consortium is a national network of universities and employers committed to achieving greater diversity in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields by advancing the careers of talented graduate students from underrepresented groups. UW–Madison is part of a cohort of competitive research institutions – including Stanford, MIT, and University of Michigan – that have helped fund over 3,000 students toward their master’s and doctoral degrees since the consortium first launched in 1976. This impact led to GEM being included as a resource highlighted in the recent American Society for Engineering Education diversity pledge signed by Dean Ian Robertson. Industry giants such as Intel, Adobe, and 3M act as partners in this endeavor, co-sponsoring students with both funding and work experience. Today, UW–Madison boasts five GEM fellows, all graduate students in engineering and biosciences.

The presence of these GEM fellows on campus is due in part to Assistant Dean LaRuth McAfee. As someone with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering (MIT ’05), Dr. McAfee was no stranger to the National GEM Consortium when she joined the Graduate School’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Funding in 2014. Colleagues, friends, and both of her brothers are among the community of GEM alumni. McAfee quickly renewed the university’s membership after receiving a request from the chemical engineering program on campus. The program was trying to recruit a GEM fellow and renewing the membership would enable current and future GEM fellows to choose UW–Madison for their graduate education. This process entailed getting support from the provost, followed by meetings with directors of graduate study and diversity leaders across campus. In August 2015, McAfee also hosted Dr. Marcus Huggans, Senior Director of External Relations for the National GEM Consortium, to help promote opportunities provided through GEM by raising awareness that it exists and informing people how it will benefit campus.

Each year, approximately 1,400 prospective graduate students apply for GEM Fellowships and around 100 are selected. Representatives of the GEM University and Employer Partners convene to evaluate GEM Fellowship applications. The top-rated applicants are then relayed to member employers, who identify students they wish to sponsor. For students to accept GEM Fellowship offers, they must both be selected by a GEM Employer Partner and enroll in an approved academic degree program at a GEM University member institution. With so few students receiving GEM Fellowship offers, many universities will provide fellowships to GEM applicants on their own, allowing those students to still have access to the GEM network and student resources.

All GEM fellows sponsored by employer partners receive financial support from and at least one internship with their employer. Employers include corporations, non-profits, government agencies, as well as National Laboratories, including Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest, and Los Alamos. This connection through the National GEM Consortium between employers and universities in some cases allows students to see how research related to their graduate degree is applied in academic and non-academic settings, and to forge valuable relationships with top researchers in their field across various employment sectors.

The National GEM Consortium serves both students and member universities. Membership in the consortium provides UW–Madison access to the GEM database of fellowship applicants, including many components of a standard graduate application. That information empowers graduate programs to identify and recruit highly qualified students from underrepresented groups. With this tool, McAfee notes, “We can be proactive in reaching out to students.” This benefit of GEM membership is especially important as we work to attract students who had not initially planned to apply to UW–Madison.

The National GEM Consortium also hosts a series of events called Getting Ready for Advanced Degrees (GRAD) Labs. These events are aimed at prospective graduate students and provide them with tips for preparing for the graduate applications and selection process. In addition to promoting UW–Madison summer and graduate program opportunities to students from other institutions, GRAD Labs present an opportunity to help excite and prepare current UW–Madison undergraduate students for graduate school. UW–Madison has co-sponsored GRAD Labs in Chicago in 2015 and 2016, and hopes to host a GRAD Lab on our campus in the near future.

In the long term, GEM membership stands to reshape long-held graduate admissions and recruitment practices. A more proactive approach to recruitment solidifies UW–Madison’s commitment to diversity and enhances its reputation among peer institutions. When employers recognize a similar stake in proactive recruitment, they not only identify top talent, but also gain an edge over competitors by recruiting students after graduation.

Assistant Dean McAfee looks forward to the day when UW–Madison hosts around ten new GEM fellows each year. For now, she eagerly awaits watching UW–Madison’s current cohort of GEM fellows graduate and begin successful STEM careers.

Margo Batie

Full Fellow
Ph.D. Candidate in Medical Physics

Margo Batie recognizes no limits. From childhood, she explains, “I was one of those curious kids who always wanted to be the best.” With college on the horizon, she devised a list of top research institutions, and eventually chose Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she pursued a double major in physics and nuclear engineering. Today, Batie is a third-year Ph.D. in Medical Physics at UW–Madison and a recipient of a selective GEM Fellowship.

Early on in college, Batie set her sights on graduate school and took steps to gain research experience. Balancing a double major, varsity basketball, and club rugby during the school year, she pursued summer research internships at both Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory. Insistent on studying abroad despite her various commitments, she completed yet another summer internship in Cape Town, South Africa at the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences.

By senior year, she had already applied to nuclear engineering graduate programs when she took a class in radiation biophysics that “blew [her] mind.” Determined to pursue her burgeoning interest in medical physics, Batie reached out to schools that had accepted her to determine whether they would accommodate her new research agenda.

UW–Madison stood out for both its flexibility and its funding opportunities. Batie accepted their offer, as well as a first-year fellowship through the Graduate Engineering Research Scholars (GERS) program. Now a student in the Medical Physics Department, she works under the guidance of Professor Ron Wakai in a lab that uses biomagnetism to study fetal heartbeats. There, Batie performs clinical tests of devices designed to capture and analyze more sophisticated information about heartbeats than ultrasound machines can.

As a GEM fellow, Batie has not only funded her coursework, but also supplemented it with valuable internship experience. After completing her master’s last spring, she spent the summer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Now, Batie continues to look forward – and her experiences as a queer woman of color inform her vision for the future. Achieving meaningful diversity within the university, she continues, requires hiring faculty who can serve as role models for members of underrepresented groups.

Hector Fuster

Full Fellow
Ph.D. Candidate in Chemical Engineering

Like Andrew Lambert, other fellows feel similarly about GEM sponsors whose research missions reflect their goals. Hector Fuster, a second-year Ph.D. student in chemical & biological engineering, spent the summer before graduate school at 3M in the Twin Cities. There, he investigated methods of processing raw materials more effectively, building from undergraduate research experience in a laboratory working on next-generation cell phone materials. This internship clarified Fuster’s research agenda and confirmed his interest in an industry career. In short, he says, “It shaped how I approached day one of grad school here.”

Fuster might have missed this opportunity without the encouragement of his friend Alicia Cintora. Before starting her Ph.D. at Cornell University, Cintora had secured a GEM Fellowship and, as Fuster jokes, became a “hype woman” for the program. Recognizing that his résumé would “shine” before employers, she persuaded him to apply. Fuster soon shared her enthusiasm when he followed in Cintora’s footsteps as a 3M summer intern. That opportunity introduced him to a diverse group of interns from across the world, including graduate students from UW–Madison. As important, it helped Fuster make connections across disciplines: “I learned how to communicate my science to another sort of scientist, or to someone with a business background.”

Now in his second year at UW–Madison, Fuster continues to exercise those skills. “I never thought I’d work with such a broad range of scholars,” he says, adding, “People are open to collaboration. As a member of the Nicholas Abbott lab, he contributes to a research project that bridges disciplinary boundaries. Specifically, he examines how liquid crystals like the ones in LCD screens change when they react to surfaces. Like Lambert, he barely hesitates when asked whether he would pursue a career with his GEM sponsor: “I would work at 3M in a heartbeat.” Whatever the future brings, the internship stands as “proof of progress toward [his] goals,” which include pursuing scientific questions with the public good in mind.

Andrew Lambert

Full Fellow
Ph.D. Candidate in Electrical Engineering

Andrew Lambert speaks candidly of the impact of the GEM Fellowship on his graduate career in electrical engineering: “If it weren’t for GEM, I pretty much wouldn’t be here.” Lambert is one of five UW–Madison students to win competitive fellowships from the GEM Consortium, which pairs universities and national employers to advance the careers of talented graduate students from underrepresented groups in engineering and applied sciences. As an applicant, Andrew caught the attention of Intel Corporation, whose sponsorship gained the attention of graduate programs in turn. For Full Fellows like Lambert, industry sponsorship enhances academic success while laying groundwork for promising careers.

As Lambert explains it, his overall goal is to “optimize technology through hardware.” In college, this aim entailed studying resistors both within and beyond the classroom in an internship working on speaker devices. Now, as a first-year master’s student, he focuses on microelectronics within cell phones, as well as quantum computing. Developments in these fields depend on interdisciplinary work, and UW–Madison appealed to Lambert for precisely this reason. Although he calls the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering home, Lambert works closely with Professor Robert McDermott in the Department of Physics.

Before beginning his degree, Lambert completed an internship at Intel last summer as part of his GEM Fellowship package. He does not mince words in assessing its importance, declaring it “the best internship experience I’ve had – so far.” Next summer, Lambert returns to Oregon for a second internship at Intel, working in a new division that reflects the direction of his research. Would he return to Intel after completing his master’s and Ph.D.? Without question. As Lambert points out, researchers there are committed to pursuing his own personal aspiration: building the best possible quantum computer.

Patrick Cervantes

Associate Fellow
Ph.D. Candidate in Cellular and Molecular Biology

Patrick Cervantes began college as a kinesiology major, but green fluorescent proteins (GFPs) dramatically changed his course. When a professor invited him to participate in a hands-on biotechnology program, Cervantes accepted, launching into experiments using GFPs to explore DNA cloning and protein expression. From then on, he was “hooked” on research. Today, Cervantes is a GEM Associate Fellow and a second year Ph.D. student in Medical Microbiology and Immunology and the graduate program in Cellular and Molecular Biology.

As a member of Laura Knoll’s lab, Cervantes investigates host/pathogen interactions and focuses on a parasite called toxoplasma. While this parasite goes undetected among healthy people, it can develop into toxoplasmosis among people with weakened immune systems, such as pregnant women. By studying the mechanisms toxoplasma uses to manipulate a host’s immune response, Cervantes hopes to discover better treatments for the disease it causes. In the process, he oversees undergraduate students working on projects designed to support his own. With luck, they will also get “hooked” on research.

Against this backdrop, Cervantes is relieved not to worry about funding. A fellowship from the Science and Medicine Graduate Research Scholars (SciMed GRS) program not only supported his first year of study, but also introduced him to friends during his first semester. This year, a GEM Fellowship provides continued support while introducing him to an expansive network of students, universities, and employers. “I never thought that this would happen,” he says, “because I’ve always struggled to pay for school.” Cervantes notes that these funding packages take burdens off both students and faculty.” Otherwise, our principal investigator has to take money out of grants to pay our stipend,” he says. For Knoll and other PIs, student fellowships translate into more resources for experiments.

In the long term, Cervantes sets his sights on a career investigating infectious diseases. He believes that his research on toxoplasma lays the groundwork for future experiments on malaria. In that field, he hopes to make a “bigger impact” working for organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or National Institutes of Health. Toward that end, the GEM Fellowship has enabled him to immerse himself in research with important applications in the fields of science and public health.

Edward Westerband

Associate Fellow
M.S. Candidate in Civil & Environmental Engineering

For Edward Westerband, graduate school means more than research and coursework. “You have to get involved in other stuff beyond that,” he comments. Barely halfway through his first semester at UW–Madison, the environmental engineering master’s student is already actively involved in student chapters of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and Engineers Without Borders, as well as the Solid Waste Association of North America. As Westerband explains, his commitment to these communities mirrors the commitment the university made to him, by selecting him as a GEM Associate Fellow and funding him through the Graduate Engineering Research Scholars (GERS) program.

As an undergraduate student in Puerto Rico, Westerband studied environmental engineering and was driven to pursue it further as a graduate student: “If you can keep learning, you should do it.” UW–Madison stood out among other civil engineering graduate programs for the department’s breadth of classes and research. Now, as a first year in the program, he focuses on the environmental impacts of nano-silver particles working with advisor Andrea Hicks. As soon as he arrived in Madison, he worked to open lines of communication between UW–Madison and his alma mater, the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. He wanted to purse a possible a partnership between the two schools. In the future, he hopes to encourage more fellow alumni to consider UW–Madison, thereby diversifying Madison’s graduate community. Of the potential partnership, he remarks, “I am proud to have made that connection.”

Westerband dreams of establishing his own environmental engineering firm and pursuing projects with the common good in mind. Ultimately, Westerband envisions returning to Puerto Rico to help remediate Vieques Island, designated a Superfund Site by the Environmental Protection Agency. There, hazardous materials remain from decades of weapons testing conducted by the United States Navy. Directing his energy and expertise towards this problem, Westerband hopes to curb high rates of cancer on the island and revitalize its economy. In the meantime, he keeps busy between coursework and public service, offering the following matter-of-fact explanation: “What am I going to do in my extra time? Something useful.”

About the Author

Jillian Slaight

Ph.D. Candidate in History
Author, Graduate School Profiles

Jillian Slaight is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, where she focuses on eighteenth-century Europe, as well as gender and women’s history. Her dissertation examines the crime of seduction to understand how men and women exercised increasing control over decisions about marriage and sexuality on the eve of the French Revolution.

Feedback, questions or accessibility issues: webmaster@grad.wisc.edu.
© 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System