The SURGE scholars gather before presenting their research at a symposium in 2016. Lauren Abrahams, who is now a graduate student in geophysics, is pictured in the back row, third from the left. (Photo credit: Jerry Wang)
10 years of SURGE
The Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering (SURGE) program celebrates 10 years of bringing students from diverse backgrounds to Stanford for a summer of Earth science research and graduate school preparation.
A multitude of perspectives is crucial for finding solutions to 21st-century problems like efficient energy production and environmental justice, unraveling the complex dynamics of Earth’s processes, and creating a sustainable planet for future generations.
But how do you increase diversity in the geosciences, a field that has lagged behind all other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields? By creating more opportunities for students to explore research and diversifying the academic pipeline, for a start.
In the geosciences, about 88 percent of doctoral degrees are awarded to white students, and that ratio determines the makeup of academic leaders. In 2011, Jerry Harris, now emeritus and then the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Professor in Geophysics, saw an opportunity to help change the academic structure by creating the Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering (SURGE) program at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). Ten years later, the mentorship program is seeing the results of that effort with 139 alumni who are from underrepresented backgrounds now in the Earth sciences.
Based on a 2019 survey, about 50 percent of SURGE participants enrolled in graduate school and around 50 percent of SURGE alumni who applied to Stanford Earth graduate programs were admitted. The vast majority of SURGE scholars over the past decade identify as Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Pacific Islander, and/or first-generation college students.
Through SURGE, undergraduate students from all over the country collaborate with Stanford Earth faculty and graduate students for an 8-week session of research, career guidance, and graduate school preparation. The experience can range from measuring the body size of marine animals and the chemistry of the ocean to programming computers to identify circulation patterns in the atmosphere.
Applicants vie to be among the 6 percent of applicants accepted – and Stanford researchers vie for the chance to work with them.
“I’ve seen this change over the years: It’s always been competitive for student applicants to get into the SURGE program,” said Jonathan Payne, the Dorrell William Kirby Professor at Stanford Earth. “Over time, the number of faculty members proposing projects for SURGE students has increased. The program is now competitive on both sides – faculty members are competing for the opportunity to work with such excellent students each summer, and that’s really exciting to me.”
In 2020, SURGE transitioned to remote programming, offering 11 of its 250 applicants positions with faculty mentors at Stanford Earth who were able to accommodate remote research. For some, acquiring the skills to make meaningful analyses can be the most stimulating part of the experience. For others, it’s just seeing themselves doing scientific research for the first time – and having mentors invested in their success.
“After SURGE, I have this feeling that if I just believe in myself, that means I can do it,” said 2020 participant Angelo Tarzona, who worked on improving the positioning of vintage radar data with geophysics assistant professor Dustin Schroeder and PhD student Mickey MacKie. “I see people like Mickey, who even when everything is going downhill, they’re still passionate about what they’re doing,” he said, referring to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tarzona said he was initially daunted by the prospect of contributing to Stanford research, but during an initial interview, Schroeder mentioned he had been a first-generation student at a small liberal arts college.
“My goal is to provide the students with the opportunity for the same kind of transformative experience that undergraduate research was for me,” said Schroeder, who has been a SURGE mentor since 2017. “I am deeply indebted to many people who took time to mentor me as a first-gen college student, scientist, engineer, and researcher. I will spend a lifetime trying to pay back that debt, and SURGE is one of the most direct, impactful, and inspiring ways I get to do that.”
In addition to fostering a sense of belonging in the geosciences, the program provides classes in Graduate Record Examination (GRE) preparation, giving participants a leg up if they decide to pursue graduate school. On average, SURGE scholars improve their GRE quantitative scores by 25 percentile points.
The primary goal of the program is to lower barriers to a career in academia, and the framework models how graduate school admission is often based on a match with a particular advisor, in addition to academic excellence. By involving faculty with the selection process, SURGE also provides a great way to recruit and evaluate potential Stanford Earth graduate students, according to mentor David Lobell, a professor of Earth system science.
“At the end of my internship, my mentor suggested I apply to present my summer results at the Stanford Geothermal conference,” said Lauren Abrahams, who is now a PhD student with Eric Dunham, an associate professor of geophysics. “After that presentation, I was filled with so much unexpected confidence that it made me want to explore more, ask more questions, and become a better researcher.”
SURGE alumni make up 22 percent of the underrepresented minority PhD population admitted to Stanford Earth and 25 percent of the underrepresented minority students enrolled.
“When it comes to the challenges that we face with diversity and inclusion, one kind of generalized and incorrect perception that people have is that there are not enough applicants,” said Lupe Carrillo, the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Stanford Earth, who has been running SURGE since 2015. “The SURGE program shows there are a lot of people in the field who are interested and qualified.”
For many underrepresented undergraduates, the prospect of conducting research at Stanford can seem reserved for the elite and unwelcoming for those students whose life experiences bring to the forefront social inequities and questions of justice. Even if they recognize the importance of education, more pressing problems take precedence, from citizenship status to the health and safety of parents deemed essential workers during the pandemic.
“There are a lot of different barriers and circumstances that may make people doubt themselves,” said Carrillo, who is Mexican American/Chicana and a first-generation-to-college student in her family. “I’m here to make sure that we remove those barriers at Stanford and make it a place where we belong without a question.”
Carrillo, along with Stanford Earth graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, recruits many applicants at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the largest international gathering of researchers in Earth and space sciences, and at SACNAS, the largest multidisciplinary and multicultural STEM event in the country.
“The doubt doesn’t come from lack of qualifications or preparations – those students are very committed and excited about the science,” Carrillo said. “Sometimes you need experiences or mentors to reflect who you are. It’s not like the SURGE program is the only vehicle that placed them on this path. I remind them that they themselves created these opportunities, and their passion for science has led them to this path, as well.”
The program provides funding for participants to attend a professional conference like AGU, where they can present their work and make connections with other professionals. The summer schedule also includes a career panel, in which participants hear from professionals with non-academic professions.
“The goal of the program is to put people on the path toward PhDs and academia, but we emphasize that we want to give them opportunities to make choices for themselves – to feel empowered to pursue academia or research or science in the way that they want to and really use this opportunity as a springboard,” Carrillo said.
While about half of the SURGE participants over the last 10 years have enrolled in graduate school for master’s and PhD programs, others have accepted positions at the U.S. Geological Survey, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and technology companies.
Many SURGE alumni have emphasized the importance of making connections through the program – both as a cohort with fellow students and as research partners with Stanford faculty and graduate students.
In Schroeder’s case, several SURGE scholars have continued working on research with his lab after their summer program ended. Mentor relationships have landed students in other research labs through the networks of Stanford researchers, as well as provided a sounding board for academic and career advice.
“One thing I find really inspiring about the program is how opportunity leads to more opportunity,” said Stephan Graham, the Chester Naramore Dean of Stanford Earth. “While we have more work to do in diversifying our faculty and graduate student population, SURGE is a key tool for bringing more underrepresented candidates into the academic pipeline.”
Abrahams said it was a SURGE homework assignment to interview three faculty members and learn more about their research that led her to become interested in Dunham’s lab.
“Cold-calling networking can be awkward, but the internship gave us the opportunity, or an excuse, for reaching out,” Abrahams said. “I met my current advisor during one of those meetings and am now a PhD student in his group.
Dean Stephan Graham, a professor of geological sciences, teaches SURGE participants on a field trip in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Lupe Carrillo)
Lobell, Schroeder, and other Stanford Earth faculty will begin submitting project proposals in December for the next SURGE cohort. Over half of Stanford Earth’s faculty members have participated in the program since its inception, and despite the challenges of moving online during a pandemic, the passionate people behind the undertaking do not show signs of slowing.
With interest so high, the next goal will be to grow the program by identifying additional sources of funding, said Payne, who has mentored 11 SURGE scholars over the 10 years since the program started.
“I think it’s important to be proactive in giving opportunities to students from backgrounds who don’t normally think of research as a career path,” said Lobell, who is also the Gloria and Richard Kushel Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment and the William Wrigley Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “We have a long way to go on diversity, and SURGE in my view is the area where the school has made the most progress and where we can continue to do more.”
SURGE 2020 sets a high virtual bar
Participating virtually due to COVID-19, students in the 2020 SURGE program shared a different experience than cohorts in previous years. Fortunately, 11 of the 14 original research projects were able to transition online, and despite the distance, the program still offered the feeling of a cohort.
“When we actually met each other for the first time, we just clicked – we were so excited to put faces to the names,” Tarzona said. “Personally, I still connect with some of the other SURGE students.”
In some ways, the virtual program may have afforded more opportunity, offering an easy way for panelists to participate in programming. For example, the career panel featured professionals from all over: Ken Alston, director of mobility and energy storage at New Energy Nexus and CalCEF Ventures; Annemarie Baltay, research geophysicist at USGS; Lauren Graham, senior associate at Cadmus Group and founder of Velvet Frame; and Richard Nevle, deputy director of the Earth Systems Program.
“Some of the panelists spoke to the experience of being a person of color or being among the only few like them in the room and what that’s like navigating your own path,” Carrillo said. “I appreciated that they were very open about that.”
The 2020 SURGE students also received a larger stipend in order to attend multiple professional conferences, where they will gain more research communications experience and hopefully be able to meet their mentors and colleagues in person.
“It was great to have Angelo in the group – if only remotely – this summer,” Schroeder said. “He’s such an integral member of the team, it’s strange to think we’ll meet him for the first time at a conference.”
The 2020 SURGE participants communicated, learned, and presented their research via Zoom. (Image credit: Lupe Carrillo)
SURGE is supported by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the National Science Foundation, and Stanford Earth. It is recognized nationally as a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.