Expanding the WAVE Pipeline

"WAVE is really the reason I am a graduate student at Caltech," says Rebekah Loving. "It gave me confidence and introduced me to a place where I knew I could be successful."

Loving, a second-year graduate student in biology, is referring to the WAVE Fellows program, a Caltech initiative begun in 2015. During this 10-week summer program, undergraduates from historically minoritized communities conduct research with a Caltech faculty member while also receiving support and guidance from current graduate students.

With the recent support of several Institute research centers and vigorous outreach efforts led largely by graduate students, Caltech has been able to triple the number of students it hosts in the program. This increase, from 25 to around 80 students this summer—and for summers to come—was made possible by direct funding from campus research centers, divisions, and institutes committed to the effort as well as additional grant funding (this year from Braun, Edison, Genentech, and Facebook) and contributions from individual donors.

"The WAVE program is a proven way to increase the pool of talented undergraduates from underrepresented groups applying to our PhD programs," says David Anderson, the Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology and director of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience, which has committed to support five WAVE fellows.

The expansion of WAVE, says Candace Rypisi, assistant vice provost and director of Student-Faculty Programs (SFP), is a direct result of the efforts of the Black Scientists and Engineers of Caltech (BSEC), a group led by graduate students that works to provide support and build community for Black/African American students and postdocs. In bringing attention to the issues around representation in STEM of Black students and others who identify with traditionally underrepresented communities, BSEC specifically highlighted the WAVE program as an important resource in building a pipeline for recruitment of those groups into graduate programs.

"One of the things that makes WAVE different from other programs," says Loving, who is one of the BSEC members who pushed for the expansion of the fellowship program, "is that it's targeted more toward people who are less certain or less exposed to the academic path. They come from backgrounds where they didn't necessarily know about Caltech when they applied to an undergraduate school, and maybe they didn't know that graduate school was an option."

Students in WAVE participate in a 10-week summer program during which they conduct research under the guidance of a Caltech faculty member. They also receive support from Caltech graduate students who counsel them on other issues they might face in a graduate program, such as experiencing impostor syndrome and negotiating lab dynamics. Weekly meetings with SFP staff and an academic and professional development workshop series put together especially for WAVE fellows, along with social and cultural activities, complete the experience.

With the influx of funding and support last fall, SFP had to quickly rethink its recruitment strategy. "We had not been doing a lot of recruitment for the WAVE program," says Rypisi, "because we always had more than enough good applications to sustain our 25 positions. Suddenly, that had to change." First, SFP hired two work-study students to build out a robust email list of about 12,000 STEM-focused faculty from across the U.S. Next, they implemented a more aggressive plan to recruit at virtual student STEM conferences. Virtual discipline-based information sessions hosted by graduate students and faculty during the conferences drew upwards of 500 interested students.

These bold recruitment efforts doubled the applicant pool, and in that process, says Rypisi, the median GPA of the applicants also increased slightly, "which was great because of course you want to know you are attracting the students who are strong and who will succeed in the program." The applicant pool also expanded to include students not just from peer institutions but also from small liberal arts colleges, state colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Hispanic-Serving Institutions. The hardest part was selecting which 80 students to admit to the program, says Rypisi. "It's really taken a lot of people to make this happen and especially the hard work and commitment of the graduate students," she notes.

For the Institute, the success of the WAVE program is part of a broader effort to increase diversity on campus. More than 90 percent of WAVE participants go on to graduate school, says Rypisi. "The number of those students who apply to Caltech for grad school is increasing. The number who get in and those who end up coming is increasing. But there is still a gap between each of those steps. We hope that gap continues to close as we get better and better at refining our recruitment and admissions processes."

The campus research centers, institutes, and divisions that have supported the expansion of WAVE—the Kavli Nanoscience Institute, the Resnick Sustainability Institute (RSI), the Center for Environmental Microbial Interactions, Information Science and Technology, the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Chen Institute—are clear about the benefits that will ensue for their own work.

"RSI research relies on a steady stream of extremely smart, creative, and highly motivated students," says Jonas Peters, Bren Professor of Chemistry and director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute, which is funding 15 fellowships. "Our investment in the WAVE program opens us to the fullest pool of talent out there, enabling our campus to recruit and train young scientists and engineers truly passionate about sustainability. We see WAVE as win-win-win!"

An earlier version of this story was posted on November 5, 2020.

Written by Judy Hill

Caltech Communications