26 June 2023

Spectrum: Empowering Equitable Excellence

Natasha Latouf George Mason University

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Spectrum logoIt is well established that historical and current systemic barriers have resulted in disproportionately low rates of recruitment and retention for underrepresented minorities (URMs) in physics and astronomy. Women earn only 21% and 33% of the bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy respectively, numbers that have remained stagnant for nearly the last decade (2007-2017) despite a 46% increase in the number of physics degrees awarded in the same time period (Porter & Ivie 2019). While there have been some improvements in these numbers for women in the past few years, they still lag behind the expected values given our population. Students from underrepresented racial groups, including Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students, have not seen similar improvements, earning only ~16% of bachelor’s degrees and ~6% of PhDs in astronomy in 2014, with very little improvement since (Jones 2018). Increasing the fraction of women and people from URMs in astronomy is important for the strength of astronomy as a discipline and for the growth of the STEM workforce. 

Some members of Spectrum. Image credit: Natasha Latouf.
Spectrum Leadership and Olive the Corgi. Image credit: Natasha Latouf.

In Spring 2020, four astronomy students from historically minoritized groups co-founded Spectrum, a student-created and student-run diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) advocacy organization in the George Mason University (GMU) Department of Physics and Astronomy. The primary goal of this organization is to drive sustainable change to improve transparency, diversity, equity, and inclusion within the fields of physics and astronomy, starting within our home department. With this objective in mind, Spectrum has taken on responsibility for ensuring students not only graduate from our department as well-rounded scientists but also emerge as influential ambassadors and advocates for DEIA. Most notably, Spectrum began a mentoring program in June of 2020 that has flourished in the last three years. The Spectrum peer mentorship program aims to foster a diverse, inclusive, and scientifically minded community within the graduate and undergraduate physics and astronomy populations at GMU. The peer mentorship program has helped guide multiple cohorts of students through their initial years at GMU and provided a sense of community and ownership in the department that has been shown to increase retention and prepare them to pursue their chosen physics career (Godwin et al. 2016). This feeling of ownership can be seen explicitly, as members of our original mentee class are now becoming mentors, with a desire to provide newer students with the same supportive environment that they had. We built workshops to increase community and belonging by discussing imposter phenomena, science writing, and engaging game nights. By encouraging new generations of physics students to engage with DEIA work and find a sustainable balance with their science, their commitment to the field and satisfaction with their efforts is increased in the long run (Pando 2022). We match each mentee with two mentors to provide a range of outlooks, and we match based on personality as well as what each person is looking for out of their mentorship program. This constellation mentorship style allows for the mentorship to be shared across multiple people, and allows mentors to have a community to ask for advice.

We provide educational resources on historically minoritized groups in STEM, to increase knowledge of how a diverse community is crucial to scientific advancement, as well as an extremely large range of resources for undergraduates, graduates, faculty, and anyone else interested in expanding their skills. The primary source of training for mentors so far has been through relatively informal education, through a compilation of resources discussing best practices distributed through Spectrum’s website, with targeted discussions on topics such as imposter syndrome, self-advocacy, stress management, and effective communication. Thanks to the AAS Education & Professional Development (EPD) grant, we now have the opportunity to formalize and standardize our training procedures to ensure that our student mentors are well equipped with the proper tools to best support their mentees, such as effective boundary setting and a firm community for seeking mentorship aid, while also knowing how to take care of themselves while advising potentially sensitive situations. We will also teach student mentors what they should expect from their own mentors, and how to recognize and exit academically abusive situations. We have developed a similar mentorship training specifically for faculty, to have frank discussions on mentorship expectations and best practices with students, while also reaffirming that being a mentor is not a right, but a privilege. We aim to empower our student mentors with their own leadership, inform them of what they should expect for themselves out of their own mentors, and give faculty the resources they need to educate themselves. All of the developed resources will be made accessible to all AAS members via our website and dissemination through AAS newsletters, to ensure that our work is freely available to any university to improve their retention and recruitment through mentorship.


Porter, A. M., & Ivie, R. 2019. "Women in Physics and Astronomy, 2019. Report." AIP Statistical Research Center. 

Godwin, A., Potvin, G., Hazari, Z. & Lock, R. 2016. "Identity, Critical Agency, and Engineering: An Affective Model for Predicting Engineering as a Career Choice." Journal of Engineering Education, 105: 312-340. DOI:10.1002/jee.20118

Pando, J. 2022. "Searching for Equilibrium: Integrating EDI in All Phases of a Career." APS April Meeting Abstracts. 

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