“Breaking Down Barriers” in Biological Science For Disadvantaged Undergraduates

Illustration by Alyssa Long

Lauren Marnel Shores

Two U.C. Santa Barbara (UCSB) Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) U*STAR Scholars are working towards empowering disadvantaged students interested in biological science with their outreach event, Breaking Down Barriers. During the event, which will take place in Elings Hall from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 16, students will have the opportunity to network with professors who seek to guide diverse students and prospective scientific scholars. 

The event was first formulated in October by Roy Garcia, and has since been in development with co-creator Celeste Parra. Both Garcia and Parra are fourth-year biochemistry majors in the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) department. 

The event is being funded by the MARC program, an undergraduate scholarship that provides students from underrepresented backgrounds with health research experience and graduate school preparation. Students will have the opportunity to learn more about the program, among various others available for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, during the event.

In an interview with The Bottom Line, Garcia explained that when he was a first-year student, he felt that there were limited resources available that properly addressed the intersectionality of his identity in regards to the specific challenges he faced pursuing science. 

“Yes, there were various events made available to students like me — that being first-generation students,” explained Garcia, “however, this never seemed precise enough to what I needed as an individual … There was this great disparity between the audience they were targeting and myself, and so I decided to directly bridge that gap here, and try and empower students like myself.” 

As such, Breaking Down Barriers is primarily aimed at reaching first- and second-year students. Garcia explained his goal was to reach undergraduates in their formative years, as these are crucial for learning how to network and to gain research experience. 

That being said, he elaborated that older students can still obtain valuable guidance from the event, stating, “The event is primarily what you make of it … If you’re unclear about anything, you can gain something from the event, and I feel confident in that. We’re providing a chance to really uncover whatever you want about the science field.”

The event will consist of two parts, the first being a 30-minute panel in which Dr. Cheavar Blair, Dr. Carlos Ponice Rojas, Dr. Samantha Davis, and Carlos Gomez will speak about their own diverse experiences and struggles throughout their career. Students who pre-register for the event are given the opportunity to submit anonymous questions, the most common of which will be answered by the panelists. 

“The main idea behind this event is providing power to the students,” stated Garcia, going on to explain that the second part of the event will be a mixer where undergraduates can ask post-doctoral fellows questions not answered on the panel, or simply ones that students are too shy to have asked in front of an auditorium. 

Currently, 37 undergraduates have submitted an RSVP, with another 15 students anticipated to attend the event. With these numbers, those in attendance can expect a 2:1 student-faculty ratio during the mixer, the intention of which is to provide students with more individualized attention and the chance to make personal connections with faculty. 

Garcia and Parra hope to facilitate conversations about diversity and intersectional barriers by having faculty wear stickers that identify the most salient aspects of their identity. For example, students will be able to easily distinguish faculty who are willing to talk about their experiences in the science field as first-generation students, people of color, LGBTQ+, and any other identity the faculty member feels comfortable speaking to.

When asked what Garcia hopes undergraduate students will take away from the event, he stated, “regardless of [the student’s] background up until this point, if they have passion any aspect of the science field, they can accomplish it. We’re here to show them that.”