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Meet BOR-SREB Doctoral Scholars Kassandra Ford and Juita Martinez

UL Grad School -- 12/18/2020

Kassandra Ford and Juita Martinez are both students in UL Lafayette’s Ph.D. in Biology program. They are also friends, active Twitter users, and SREB Doctoral Scholars.

The SREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program works to confront the lack of diversity among college faculty by supporting underrepresented minority students in doctoral programs who will pursue careers in academia.

More than one-third of America’s college students are people of color. Yet, the Southern Regional Education Board cites that approximately 5 percent of faculty are African-American, about 3 percent are Hispanic, and about 1 percent are Native American.

Finding a Career Path

For Juita Martinez, a love of nature started early.

“I was that weird kid. You could catch me watching ants and following snails. It wasn't probably until high school that I learned, well, I could actually get paid to do this and for the rest of my life, and it would be amazing,” she says.

During college, Juita became particularly interested in seabirds. After learning about an opening to study brown Pelican populations with Dr. Paul Leberg, she knew applying to UL Lafayette’s Ph.D. in Biology program was the right path to take. Receiving the BOR-SREB Fellowship made the decision that much easier.

“It was an offer I couldn't refuse,” Juita reflects. “I also felt like this place could be home, and it is.”

When Kassie was researching graduate programs, the strength of UL Lafayette biology research profile and the attentiveness of the faculty members made their mark.

“I actually got a cold email from the biology department at UL from Dr. Brad Moon asking if I'd be interested in applying to the program,” she recalls. 

“And so I did some research, looked up all the professors in the biology program, and came across my future advisor, Dr. James Albert. He studies fish, which I was immediately interested in, and then his research even further caught my eye when he said that he studied electric fish - which just completely blew my mind!”

“He was really excited to meet with me and talk about how I could potentially do research in the lab,” Kassie remembers.

Receiving the BOR-SREB fellowship helped everything come together.

“Once I got the offer of some funding, along with an awesome advisor and research program, there really wasn't another place for me to go. Between the support and the advisor and everything like that here, it's been a perfect fit.”

Comprehensive Support and Mentoring

The Doctoral Scholars Program offers comprehensive support and mentoring. In addition to financial assistance and research funding, Fellows receive career counseling and networking opportunities, including participation in the annual Institute on Teaching and Mentoring.

“Minority doctoral scholars from all across the country meet and talk about their research, talk about their lives, get some feedback on how they can apply for jobs in the future,” Kassie says.

The Institute is the largest gathering of Ph.D. scholars from underrepresented minority communities in the country. 

“It's a great opportunity for networking and meeting people that look like you that are going through the same things that you're going through,” Kassie says.

Advocacy and Serving Others

In addition to all the typical responsibilities that come with graduate school, Juita and Kassie actively work to combat racism in STEM and advocate for Black representation. Over the summer, they helped launch the social media initiative #BlackBirdersWeek, which seeks to amplify the voices and experiences of Black birdwatchers, scientists, and nature lovers.

Looking ahead, they aspire to continue their advocacy work while advancing their academic careers.

“I want to give the next generation of students that look like me an example to follow because I didn't really have that growing up. I want them to know that they can reach their goals, whatever that may be,” Juita says.