By Thuy Dam
Dr. Marion Martin, Assistant Teaching Professor, North Carolina State University (NC State) currently teaches Gen Chem I and II. He helped to develop and now leads the course "Introduction to Graduate Studies – Professional Development." This course helps students get acclimated to life at NC State and includes mentee training; a session on Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity, Bias Training, and Microaggressions; and a conversation with the campus counseling center.
I am originally from South Carolina and went to Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. I started at Stanford in September 2001. Hans Bechtel had decided to go to Stanford and so I knew Hans and obviously knew Stanford way before then, but that just kind of gave me maybe a personal connection with the department. I had applied to several schools, two in the Bay - Stanford and Berkeley - and was fortunate enough to get into both. I had visited both but felt that the department atmosphere at Stanford was a little bit more relaxed and along the lines of what I was looking for.
There was also a minority or underrepresented student recruitment weekend. I did not actually get to participate in it but the fact that they were holding a weekend specifically for students from underrepresented groups at least communicated that they had recognized that the graduate experience for students of color may be different and so they wanted to give students a chance to come out, meet other students of color and hear about their experiences on campus.
I was involved in the Black Graduate Student Association and that is a pretty key and important part of my experience at Stanford. I had an opportunity to work with Dick Zare and worked in his group in the basement of Mudd (chuckling). I met some great folks and had a good time. I started the program with a young man named Ryan McGlothlin (Donald Ryan McGlothlin) . He went on to serve in the marines and, unfortunately during his time in the marines and while I was still a graduate student, he was killed in service in Iraq. The last time that I had visited campus was to speak at his memorial.
It was an organization on campus. We pretty much had students from every discipline (business school, law school, med school) people from all over campus getting together. We had monthly meetings where we would connect and have other programs from time to time promoting issues of diversity (for example Black History Month).
I think it kind of normalized my graduate experience. To be technical, there were days that I just felt like I was wrestling trying to get my laser set up to work right. I am almost embarrassed to say now [chuckling], it got to a point where sometimes when I would see people, they would not ask me how I was doing, they would ask how the laser was doing. I had talked about it so much, that is just what they asked about.
Meeting with folks in different departments, it normalized that getting a Ph.D. can be difficult but if you sustain effort and collaborate, that you can stay the course and be successful. Just because an experiment or two did not work or you had a setback here or a disagreement with an advisor or co-worker, that was not the end all be all. You could just kind of hang in there and regroup.
Near the end of my career, there was a subset group of us that met weekly, we called it Pushing Hard Daily. We were all within a year or so of finishing and in the writing phase of completing our dissertations and we would have these weekly work sessions (one at night or lunch time). Sometimes we would work or just chit chat. It was a space to encourage each other to persevere, stick with it, you had come that far, keep pressing on and finish up. Sometimes people think well, maybe I am experiencing this because of XYZ...maybe because I am a black man in this different field. There are maybe some disadvantages, there are some structural issues but also a Ph.D. is hard for everybody. It was not because I am a black man that my laser was not working. Just gave me the space to think through is this a structural issue or is this just something that everybody experiences?
I have always wanted to be an educator. Even growing up, my mom and aunts were all educators. I even thought about teaching high school chemistry or coaching high school football. In my undergrad experience, I had the opportunity to do research and really enjoyed that experience. Some of my mentors there said: Well, have you thought about pursuing a career in academia? At that time, I had not really thought about it and then realized that I like research and helping people. And so, pursuing a career in academia started to really come to the forefront. Even at Stanford, working with Dick, he was always supportive of me pursuing a career in academia...Over time, I found myself gravitating more to the teaching aspect of things than research. So that is how I ended up at NC State in a position where my primary responsibility is teaching but also service to the department, College of Sciences, and university. In the department, I have been working on issues associated with diversity, equity, and inclusion which is an opportunity to help create a more welcoming, diverse and inclusive space.
We are still getting things off the ground and this first year was really about working on trying to identify some programs that we can begin to implement that are evidence-based that will perhaps lead to a more diverse faculty or student body. Also, when these folks arrive on campus that it will be a space that is welcoming and inclusive and not one that is riddled with microaggressions and a hostile work environment.
One of the things that we are doing is implementing a seminar program that is more designed for our undergraduates...We are also trying to press on to make sure that we have more diverse representation of the people who speak so that if I go to a seminar it is more likely that I will see someone that looks like me which would encourage me in terms of pursuing perhaps a career in industry or academia or even thinking maybe I could go get a Ph.D. because maybe you had not thought about it...When you see someone who looks like you, you think that is a pathway that is accessible to me...We know the challenges we face in terms of technology, health, and energy, all of these things that we are trying to find solutions to. They are pretty tall challenges, and we need as many people with as many different backgrounds and ideas and problem-solving approaches to be able to effectively address these issues.
“If we can broaden who's thinking of themselves as a scientist…we're going to increase our likelihood of being able to solve these challenges.”
I was tasked with building our inaugural committee.
“Then last summer with the death of George Floyd in the wake of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the nation was stirred to pursue change and so at that point they approached me about my interest in serving in that role and at that time it was tough because I was grieving. To have witnessed what we witnessed in the United States in 2020 in broad daylight was deeply unsettling. But then I thought that this was an opportunity to build off of that and create change in a space that some people don't have access to create change.”
We have staff, graduate students, undergraduate students, faculty - whether that is tenure track, professional track or research faculty – a committee that consists of all those folks. We have broken it down into sub-committees so that we can address the work on a smaller scale. I wanted to empower the people who are being impacted by these structures to bring about change versus just having two or three people trying to do all the work, trying to figure out everybody else's needs versus allowing them to bring those needs to the committee. Then working on them together, empowering them to help bring about long-term sustainable change. You cannot be a diversity equity and inclusion committee and only have a certain group in charge. I mean, that is almost counterintuitive to what your mission is.
I mentioned the Black Graduate Student Association. There were a few of us (black chemists and chemical engineers) that would try to go somewhere for lunch at least once a month. We would walk from Mudd over to the quad and go to the Thai Cafe which I think is closed now. All of us were from out of state so we would maybe take a trip to In-N-Out, that was a treat for us. Just hanging out, trying to hear what movie folks wanted to go see or what new album they were listening to. Those are some of the fun times that I think about.
During the stressful times of transition, it is even more important to take good care of yourself and those close to you. Other folks demanding your time is not ever going to change, so learning how to manage this now is very important.