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Laser Lab accepted into American Physical Society’s Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance

June 17, 2020
Jeanne Lyse Mugeni and Kenneth Marshall lean over their work surface to study velocity gradients in an air stream directed across a metal surface.In summer 2019, optics student Jeanne Lyse Mugeni ’21 (left) worked alongside Kenneth Marshall, senior research engineer at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE), to study velocity gradients in an air stream directed across a metal surface. LLE is making concerted efforts to support women and recruit from underrepresented groups through a new program of the American Physical Society. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

The University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) has been accepted into a new program of the American Physical Society to increase workforce diversity in physics departments and laboratories. The society’s Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance (IDEA), which accepted its first round of applications earlier this year, will create a national network to exchange ideas, explore practices, and develop plans to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion in the field. The alliance held its virtual kickoff meeting earlier this month.

“We are woefully inadequate in having a diverse workforce,” says E. Michael Campbell, director of LLE. Participation in the alliance “is going to help us do better science—by getting different perspectives, different backgrounds, and just different ways of thinking,” he says. “And it’s also just the right thing to do in every way.”

LLE’s application to the network was overseen by Terrance Kessler, a senior research engineer and diversity manager for the lab. Kessler, who is the LLE’s main representative to the IDEA program, hopes that the lab’s participation will lead to several concrete measures, including collaborations with historically black colleges and universities. He also hopes the alliance can develop a database of STEM professionals from underrepresented groups that can help all institutions expand their pool of job candidates. 

“There are small pockets” of diversity at many colleges and universities in the United States, Kessler says. “I think that the APS can pull that together so that we all have access and are able to draw from a larger group of candidates.” 

Kessler took on the role of diversity manager, a new position at the lab, in October 2019. The position coincided with a University-wide effort to improve workforce diversity, spearheaded by the institution’s first vice president for equity and inclusion, Mercedes Ramírez Fernández. Kessler leads a diversity council at LLE consisting of eight scientists, engineers, and technicians; and sits on the faculty diversity committee led by Ramírez Fernández. 

The lab, home to the most powerful laser at any academic institution in the world, employs approximately 400 scientists, engineers, technicians, and graduate students. It is a major training facility in the expanding field of high-energy-density science. While the lab’s employees come from around the globe, Kessler points to a notable dearth of staff from African or South American nations, or who identify as African American or Latino. Slightly fewer than 20 percent are women. 

LLE has made concerted efforts in recent years to support women, notably through the WISER (Women in Science and Engineering at Rochester) program. The program, coordinated by Distinguished Scientist Radha Bahukutumbi, who is also a member of the LLE diversity council, offers mentorship and support for women graduate students and early- and mid-career researchers and faculty. With sponsorship from APS as well as the National Science Foundation, it has held workshops on such topics as negotiation and communication, attended by women students, researchers, and faculty members in the Department of Physics and Astronomy as well as LLE. 

Last fall, Kessler initiated the lab’s first program targeting underrepresented groups. The BEST (Broad Exposure to Science and Technology) Student Research Experience will introduce students in the City of Rochester who are from underrepresented groups to the many areas of science and technology involved in laser energetics research, from large-scale laser experiments to technical communications. Originally set to launch this summer, the BEST program, open to high school juniors and first-year college students, will debut in the summer 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We pick juniors in high school because in their senior year, they can bring back to their peers and teachers what they learned,” says Kessler. By also including first-year college students, the program aims to expose students to a full range of career possibilities related to laboratory research at a time when they are particularly focused on defining their educational and career goals.   

The lab’s diversity council is also pursuing an application to the APS to host a regional Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics; and, in his role as the secretary of the International Committee on Ultra-High Intensity Lasers, Kessler hopes to recruit committee members from underrepresented regions of the world including African and South American nations.

Kessler, who has been at the lab for more than 40 years, notes that he is part of a multiracial family. His children have European, African, and Latin American roots. 

“I’ve stayed pretty much focused on science and teaching optics,” he says. “But now, near the end of my career, I’m very interested in dealing with these important issues.”  

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Category: Science & Technology