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Science, Not Silence

Mason’s award-winning student organization, SPECTRUM, created a support system for underrepresented Physics and Astronomy students while increasing inclusion and diversity within the department.   Carly Solis (top left), Kathryn Fernández (top right), Jenna Cann (bottom left), Natasha Latouf (bottom right)
Mason’s award-winning student organization, SPECTRUM, created a support system for underrepresented Physics and Astronomy students while increasing inclusion and diversity within the department. Jenna Cann (top left), Natasha Latouf (top right), Kathryn Fernández (bottom left), Carly Solis (bottom right)

“We believe in science, not silence” describes the motivation for SPECTRUM, a College of Science student organization growing inclusiveness at George Mason University.

In March 2020, four Physics and Astronomy students from under-represented groups came together to create a support system for other students along their academic journeys within the field. This effort created the student organization known as SPECTRUM: the Society for the Promotion of Equal Chances To Represent Underserved Minorities. SPECTRUM aims to foster a diverse and inclusive community among all Mason Physics and Astronomy students, faculty, and staff.

The global pandemic shed light on many social injustices that plague our society, including those within academia. Some marginalized students in STEM chose to speak out to guide future generations of students.

“I’ve had to fight and claw my way through every single aspect of my field, facing many forms of discrimination, sexism, micro-, and macro-aggressions along the way,” said Kathryn Fernández, resident physics education researcher, Mason PhD student, and one of SPECTRUM’s co-founders.  “And I know others have as well,” Fernández added.

Some students experience symptoms of imposter syndrome, where people doubt themselves and their skills, feeling as if they do not belong. SPECTRUM was formed to combat these problems, create a safe space for students who have struggled with these issues, and foster positive change throughout the department.

A group of students and alumni formed to propose a Physics and Astronomy Professional Code of Conduct to create a more inclusive climate which better promoted diversity. After drafting the Code, Fernández and Jenna Cann, PhD graduate and former NSF fellow; Natasha Latouf, PhD student and NSF fellow; and Carly Solis, Mason alumna, co-founded SPECTRUM.

 “Given the amount of students who joined SPECTRUM at the start, there was a sense of relief,” said Cann. “It was empowering to discuss the positives and negatives of our experiences, to realize that we weren’t alone, and to brainstorm solutions that will benefit current and future students,” Cann explained.

SPECTRUM developed many tools, processes, and programs to foster a safe space including an anonymous report form for incidents that violate the Physics and Astronomy Professional Code of Conduct and now offers a mentorship program for students seeking more individualized support.

The group also hosts weekly professional development lunches within the department.  “We cover a broad range of topics from the process of applying to grad school to toxic relationships in academia so people can air everything out and ask honest questions,” Latouf described.

“SPECTRUM offers an opportunity for faculty and staff to recognize how we fall short in diversity and inclusion and provides us with tools to improve,” expressed Joseph Weingartner Physics and Astronomy Associate Professor and SPECTRUM faculty advisor.

“Our goal is to help the culture of the department be more collaborative and inclusive,” Solis said. “SPECTRUM has provided resources for people to educate themselves, but it is the responsibility of individuals to learn on their own and maintain the new culture we are creating," explained Solis.

Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm took note of SPECTRUM’s impact and awarded the organization with the 2021 Dean’s Excellence in Service Award.

“Imposter syndrome, micro-aggressions, and underrepresentation may affect the retention of students and early career scientists from marginalized groups,” Miralles-Wilhelm said. “Moving forward, SPECTRUM encourages the formation of “sister” organizations to help our entire Mason science community garner change in their respective fields,” he added.

“SPECTRUM and the students involved in it have been a great inspiration to me,” Weingartner shared. “Working with SPECTRUM opened my eyes to problems that I didn't really understand and, by inviting me to assist in their efforts, the students have enriched my life,” expressed Weingartner.

SPECTRUM has stressed the importance of inclusion and diversity in Physics and Astronomy, yet this is only the beginning of change. Scientists must not remain silent. There is still work to be done.