For Zariq George, it was the inner workings of toaster ovens and other household electronics. For Nate Keyes, it was watching Meerkat Manor, the documentary series about charismatic animals in the Kalahari Desert.
Those sparks of curiosity led them both to pursue graduate programs in science and technology – and, this past summer, to the National Graduate Education for Minorities Fellowships Consortium (GEM), a national organization that coordinates internships and provides funding for graduate studies to underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering and math.
As part of the GEM program, George and Keyes spent their summers at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Here, Keyes worked on developing chemical catalysts for sustainable energy, while George studied the mechanics of particle accelerator design. Keyes is now a chemistry graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, and George is a robotics graduate student at the University of Michigan.
The fellows and SLAC leaders said they believe the program makes a difference beyond just the research experience itself.
“Historically, there have been fewer people like us in these spaces, and there needs to be more,” Keyes said.
SLAC's Chief Diversity Officer Natalie Holder agreed. “With the right approach and strategy, the lab’s partnership with GEM can dramatically change how we cultivate the next generation of lab leaders by developing a talent pipeline,” she said.
Since the beginning of SLAC’s partnership with GEM in the 1970s, the lab has supported more than 50 fellows as they pursue advanced degrees in STEM. In 2021, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office worked with lab management to bring the fellowships back after a hiatus of several years. Applications for the next round of GEM Fellowships are open until November 15.
(Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)
From meerkats to catalysts
Keyes’s journey into science began in high school with those meerkats. At Liverpool High School outside Syracuse, New York, Keyes indulged his appreciation for those and other animals with the support of an anatomy teacher, Michael Schmedicke.
“He had a pond next to his office, like a natural history museum,” Keyes said, and not unlike a natural history museum, Schmedicke helped foster Keyes’s appreciation for the natural world.
Later, as an undergraduate at Hamilton College, Keyes worked with chemist Wesley Kramer on a project aimed at reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which set Keyes on a path toward a PhD in chemistry. As part of his preparations for that path, Keyes pursued the GEM Fellowship.
“I thought I would intern at a chemical plant given my enthusiasm for chemistry, but my internship at SLAC seemed to parallel what my graduate experience would be,” Keyes said.
At SLAC, he worked with SLAC associate professor Kelly Gaffney and researchers at SLAC and Stanford's SUNCAT Center for Interface Science and Catalysis, including Adam Nielander and Michaela Burke Stevens.
The experience made an impression on Keyes and reinforced his beliefs about finding good mentors and supportive peers. “If you have the curiosity to understand the natural world, then find people who will support you, whether they be friends, mentors, peers or teachers,” Keyes said.
Back at Hamilton, Keyes had already worked to be a mentor for others. He co-founded a student organization called Roots to create space for underrepresented students to see themselves as scientists and engineers. The goal, he said, is to encourage students to stick with STEM despite obstacles that may arise.
Toasters, bubbles and robots
As a child, George said he loved to tinker with electronics and that his father, a diesel mechanic, inspired a desire to understand how things work. That translated into taking apart toaster ovens and putting them back together, among other adventures that led him toward an interest in science and engineering.
George said things really took off in college at the University of Florida. While a student there, he bonded with others at a meeting of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), catalyzing an interest in mechanical engineering as well as computer science and electrical engineering.
George set his sights on a GEM Fellowship on the way to studying robotics in graduate school, and SLAC assistant professor Emilio Nanni obliged with an offer to work on new particle accelerator development. At SLAC, George worked with staff engineer Valery Borzenets to understand how bubbles in liquid nitrogen – a coolant in many particle accelerators – might vibrate and wear down surrounding accelerator structures.
George said he appreciated his colleagues at SLAC. “People don’t show off there,” he said. “I always felt welcome and respected by my peers.”
And he has some advice: By setting a good example, others can see themselves in you and see the possibilities for themselves. “Learn how to work well with people you know,” George said. “Being able to empathize with the people around us helps us better relate to them.”
For more information about GEM Fellowships and to apply, visit https://www.gemfellowship.org.
For questions or comments, contact the SLAC Office of Communications at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SLAC is a vibrant multiprogram laboratory that explores how the universe works at the biggest, smallest and fastest scales and invents powerful tools used by scientists around the globe. With research spanning particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology, materials, chemistry, bio- and energy sciences and scientific computing, we help solve real-world problems and advance the interests of the nation.
SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.