Stanford Earth SURGE Alumni: Where Are They Now?
Shersingh Tumber-Davila has been surrounded by forests all his life. A native of Puerto Rico, he grew up near “El Yunque,” the island’s tropical rainforest, among palm trees and mango groves. When Tumber-Davila was 8 years old, his family moved to Massachusetts and he got to know the temperate forests of the Northeast. Now, he studies forest ecology at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences as a graduate student. It’s a career path that he never would have envisioned for himself until he participated in Stanford’s SURGE program two years ago.
Short for “Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering,” SURGE prepares minority undergraduate students for graduate school in the Earth sciences. For eight weeks, SURGE scholars conduct guided research with a Stanford Earth faculty member, take a prep course for the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), attend workshops on graduate school, and present their research. On average, SURGE scholars improve their GRE quantitative scores by 25 percentile points upon completion of the program.
Although Tumber-Davila loved the outdoors, pursuing the Earth sciences as a career was not the most obvious path. “When you come from an underrepresented minority background and you’re going into higher education, there’s a lot of pressure from family to become an engineer, or a lawyer, or a doctor,” Tumber-Davila said.
Minority students are not as often exposed to the Earth sciences as they are to fields such as the biosciences and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, said Tenea Nelson, the assistant dean of Stanford Earth’s Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA). “In general, when students are really good at science they are first directed toward the professional track,” said Nelson, who helped develop SURGE and recruited the program’s first cohort in 2011.
Jerry Harris, a geophysics professor at Stanford and the founder of SURGE, said he created the program to address the challenge of diversity in the Earth sciences. “One of my goals for SURGE was to include this broader group of engineering and science students. I wanted to expose them to the Earth sciences, where they will find interesting and exciting problems,” said Harris, who also founded OMA.
Having a diversity of voices and perspectives will be crucial for tackling the huge challenges ahead, said Pamela Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “It will change the way we see and study the world, and it will hopefully make us more effective,” Matson said.
Over the last five years, the SURGE alumni network has grown to 73 scholars, and the sixth cohort of scholars, who are coming from universities such as the University of California, Riverside; San Jose State; Harvard; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, arrived this past June. While more than a third of SURGE alumni are still completing their undergraduate degrees, around 37 percent of SURGE alumni have entered graduate school programs, while 26 percent are pursuing careers in private industry related to the geosciences. Six SURGE alumni have returned to Stanford Earth for MS and PhD programs—three of these students will begin in the fall.
A major step toward graduate school at Stanford Earth
After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, Tumber-Davila returned to Stanford Earth last fall to work with Rob Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor at Stanford, on questions of ecology and carbon cycling. Alandra Lopez—a recent graduate from Bowdoin College who participated in SURGE in the summer of 2015—will be enrolling as a PhD student in Stanford’s Earth System Science department in the fall. Both SURGE alumni considered their undergraduate research internship at Stanford a major step toward graduate school.
And the numbers do indicate that the SURGE program has had a noticeable impact on educational opportunity. Half of the SURGE students who’ve applied to Stanford Earth for graduate school received admission, making it a 50 percent acceptance rate—a significant number considering that the average acceptance rate for Stanford Earth is 11 percent. In addition to making them competitive for PhD programs, SURGE also provides them with the benefits of a cohort experience. “The community feeling that SURGE gives you and how it is set up is very translatable to grad school,” Tumber-Davila said.
When he needed to figure out how to digitize pictures of plant roots for a project in class last quarter, for example, he turned to his fellow PhD students for help. One of his classmates in a geographic information system course told him about software specifically for roots. “In order to solve that problem I couldn’t do a simple online search to find the answer—all I could do was bring up this problem with people who would have a lead,” Tumber-Davila said.
Lopez credits a SURGE homework assignment, which asked her to contact at least five Stanford Earth faculty, along with the encouragement of her SURGE mentor, for helping her clarify her specific interests in the Earth sciences. Lopez did more than what was expected and spoke with nine professors, including Scott Fendorf, the Huffington Family Professor in Earth Sciences, with whom she will be working for her PhD research. “It’s something that you’ll really appreciate at this wonderful place—talking with professors and graduate students, learning about where their passions lie, and really homing in on your own interests,” Lopez said.
When she received the acceptance letter months later after SURGE ended, she was excited for the opportunity to study in Fendorf’s lab the molecular-scale biogeochemical processes that contribute to the environmental fate of contaminants. However, she was also concerned about moving away from her close Cuban-Mexican-American family on the East Coast. “Scott emailed me before the official offer letter was sent because he wanted to give me some extra time to decide,” Lopez said.
She eventually said yes—a decision that her family fully supported. “My family assured me that it was going to be okay, and they agreed that moving out to California was going to be an exciting new experience for me,” Lopez said.
SURGE alumni attend other competitive PhD programs
Craig McLean also clarified his specific interest in the Earth sciences while participating in SURGE in 2014. He applied to the program simply because he thought conducting research in the Earth sciences, with the promise of going out in the field, sounded fun. “I wanted to try out different things and to find out the best fit for my research interests,” he said.
McLean wasn’t always sure about pursuing a career in scientific research. When he was 8 years old his family emigrated from Colombia to Texas, where he had difficulty adapting to a new culture. “That really lowered my confidence and made me diminish what I expected for myself,” McLean said.
McLean said participating in SURGE helped him change this mentality. “It was totally amazing,” he said. “It definitely raised the level of expectations that I had for myself and it taught me to think strategically and to demand a lot more of myself.”
SURGE placed McLean in the lab of Chris Francis, an associate professor of Earth system science, where he delved into the microcosmic world of microbes for the first time. He was immediately hooked. “I learned these little monsters are pretty powerful and they have an impact on our world,” McLean said. “I want to understand how they adapt as communities.”
Now, McLean will be starting a PhD program at MIT in conjunction with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution with fellowships from the National Science Foundation and from the GEM Consortium, which provides funding for minorities in engineering and the sciences. He aims to provide a more comprehensive picture of how biology is regulated by environmental factors.
Nelson, the assistant dean of OMA, anticipates that Tumber-Davila, Lopez, and McLean will continue to be a resource for each other and for future SURGE scholars. “We invite our alumni to return as speakers and mentors for our students,” she said. “Now that they are in graduate programs and in their careers, we are developing a sustained alumni network.”
We are currently at a time when the Earth sciences can tap into a growing pool of excellent minority students, Harris said. “On the one hand you have this concern with getting more students into STEM fields, and on the other hand there is this untapped population of underrepresented students. SURGE can connect those two things and address the STEM demographic issue.”
McLean, who will be working in the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory this summer as part of his fellowship, is looking forward to the road ahead as a SURGE alumnus. “It’s tough for me to forecast my future because just going to college I never would have imagined my life to turn out the way it has,” he said. “So I’m definitely anticipating more surprises when I go to MIT.”