In late August, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) recognized Eric Triplett, chair of the UF/IFAS department of microbiology and cell science, with the William A. Hinton Award for Advancement of a Diverse Community of Microbiologists.
In its announcement, the ASM states that the award “recognizes outstanding contributions toward fostering the research training of minorities and in increasing diversity in microbiology. It is given in memory of William A. Hinton, a physician-research scientist, and one of the first African Americans to join ASM.”
In light of this honor and national conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education, we asked Triplett about increasing underrepresented students’ access to science degree programs and what more needs to be done.
This is a very competitive award. What was your reaction when you found out you’d be receiving it this year?
Surprise. I didn’t see it coming. The ASM president, Dr. Victor DiRita of Michigan State, called me. He told me that he saw our efforts as a model for the nation — great words to hear.
This award must be shared with the many, many instructors in our department who did the heavy lifting of putting their courses online. I can’t take credit for that huge effort. This was a team effort.
Under your leadership, how has the department of microbiology and cell science supported underrepresented minority students?
In 2008, we embarked on an experiment. We knew that underrepresented groups were less likely to consider attending a flagship, state university in a relatively small, majority white community. That could be based on cultural or financial barriers. I have observed during my career that Land-Grant universities (I have worked at six of them) have made many attempts to increase minority enrollment through a variety of strategies. I haven’t seen any of these attempts significantly move the needle. So, we decided to take a different approach. Rather than expect minority students to come to us, let’s try going to them. Let’s put all of our lecture courses online in a 2+2 format and see if such a program is attractive to recent Associate of Arts (A.A.) degree graduates of Florida’s public colleges, particularly those with a large proportion of underrepresented students. After the first few years, we observed that this program’s diversity exceeded that of Florida, a very diverse state.
It is rare for an undergraduate STEM degree program at a major research university to have such high diversity. This program continues and we are working closely with UF Online to find more ways for it grow. In particular, we now offer the program to freshman, not just A.A. graduates. In short, the experiment worked, and we continue to test how to improve upon past efforts.
What have these efforts taught you about diversity, equity and inclusion in your field and high education?
I have learned that we have a long way to go. The online format was great for increasing our diversity, but we need ways to be more welcoming to underrepresented students as freshman on campus. I need to put much more thought into that.
We also need to increase the diversity of our faculty. Our goal is for all groups within our department (faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduates) to be as diverse as our state. We are a public institution, and we must strive to look like the state and be welcoming for all.
The department has a large undergraduate enrollment—has the major always been so popular or has that changed over time?
Our undergraduate major continues to grow. The online format of our lectures is available to on-campus students as well as off-campus students. Students appreciate the flexibility that this format gives them. It allows us to make our undergraduate program open to anyone with an interest in our subject matter and the willingness to work hard and succeed. We welcome everyone, from the new freshman on campus, to the single mom joining us from Ft. Pierce, to the firefighter in the Florida Keys, to the many adults who shoulder the huge responsibility of financially supporting family members while doing all they can to get ahead in their careers. Increasingly, our UF Online program is popular with those serving us in the U.S. Armed Forces as well as spouses of those who serve.
I recall telling our faculty in 2008 that we were going to change a lot of lives, and we have done so. All of it consistent with the Land Grant mission of the University of Florida to provide affordable and accessible public higher education.
How will the department continue to enable students of all backgrounds to pursue microbiology and cell science careers?
There is so much more we need to do. We have developed a large saliva microbiome project with samples from hundreds of students to provide all of our students, on- and off-campus, with a rich research experience. Such research experiences can greatly increase retention in STEM, and we are keen to increase retention in our UF Online cohort. We write grants to seek funds to support our students with financial need. We always look for ways to modernize our curriculum so all of our students become the great ambassadors for microbiology that our world so sorely needs.
I also want more role models for underrepresented students in our faculty ranks. We are taking some new steps to better mentor our Black graduate students and postdocs so that they can be more competitive for faculty positions across the country. Once our faculty ranks match the diversity of the state (and we are not too far off from that goal), we will have shown all of our students that everyone is welcome in our community of scholars.
Learn more about the microbiology and cell science undergraduate program as well as the 22 other majors in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.