By Tracy Crane, Department of Chemistry
As Chemistry at Illinois graduate students, Jazmin Aguilar-Romero and Sarah Krueger personify inclusive excellence, supporting each other as lab mates in Professor Steve Zimmerman’s research group and in their individual roles as student leaders who are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Both are the 2021 recipients of the Women in Chemistry Inclusive Leadership Award sponsored by the Department of Chemistry Office of Graduate Diversity and Program Climate.
The awards were announced during the Women in Chemistry Conference on Aug. 21, 2021. Katie Stawiasz was also recognized with the WIC Inclusive Leadership runner-up award. A fourth-year graduate student in professor Jeffrey Moore's lab who aspires to work at a national lab or in private industry, Stawiasz said this award means a lot to her.
"But it mostly reminds me of the amazing network of chemists within the university. I would not be receiving the runner-up award without the incredible leadership of people like Jose Zavala, a former Moore group member, who was integral in starting our partnerships with the READY program. I hope that this award continues to inspire more chemists to reach out to those who need help, and build confidence within our community," she said.
Aguilar-Romero, a fourth-year student, and Krueger, a fifth-year student, will each receive an engraved plaque and $1,000 toward participation in conferences, procurement of research materials, supplies, books, additional certifications and other professional development activities.
Aguilar-Romero said she is thankful to receive the award in recognition of time and efforts devoted to making the Department of Chemistry more diverse and inclusive.
“The work can often feel difficult and unrewarding, but I am happy that my and Sarah’s achievements have been recognized,” Aguilar-Romero said. “I would also like to recognize and thank Dr. Brenda Andrade, Dr. Edzna Garcia, and Dr. Safiyah Muhammad, all three of whom are amazing women of color who also deserved the WIC Inclusive Excellence award and inspired me during their time at UIUC. They worked to change the department and foster a community in which I was comfortable being my most genuine self, and I would just like to continue their work to form a more welcoming environment for future women of color.”
Krueger said this honor would not have been possible without the support she has received, especially from Professor Zimmerman and her research group.
“I am so thankful for the Zimmerman group, who welcomed me from my first day here and continually supports me both in research and in learning how to be more inclusive. I am also grateful to the Women Chemists Committee, the East Central Illinois ACS, and my mentors and peers who helped me to develop as a scientist and a leader.”
Aguilar-Romero is currently the chair of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Chapter at UIUC. In that group, she has pursued multiple initiatives, including organizing the first annual alumni panel and a Latinas in STEM panel. She’s also involved in the Student Wellness Coalition (SWC), and more recently, the UIUC initiative, Allies in STEM (AiS), through which she and another SACNAS member planned a talk on the importance of the Black Lives Matter Movement in STEM. That event featured Tyrone Porter (UT Austin) who discussed the historical context of racism in STEM and how allyship can support black students. About 150 students attended the discussion series. She has also mentored other students and been involved in graduate student recruitment, particularly students from underrepresented groups in chemistry, helping to organize a very successful virtual recruitment event last year.
“As long as I have known Jazmin, she has been constantly involved with department leadership efforts aimed at making our community a more inclusive space,” wrote one of her nominators. “She has been a leader in fostering diversity in the department in many different forms and an especially strong advocate for students of color in our department, working towards developing a stronger sense of community and diverse leadership.”
Aguilar-Romero said she is excited to share this award with Krueger, who has been a friend, supporter and an ally.
“When I struggled through classes and with finding a support system my first year, she and other members of the Zimmerman group made it clear that I could ask them for help and guidance,” Aguilar-Romero said. “Sarah has been one of my most powerful and committed allies… she is quick to lend a helping hand, whether you’re struggling with a spectroscopy problem set or you need someone to support an initiative.”
Krueger said Aguilar-Romero has been a source of support for her, too, as well as an inspiration.
“Jazmin is a wonderful colleague, lab mate, and friend. Her commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is evident in everything that she does,” Krueger said. “I am grateful to share this award and for the opportunity to work with her. As we have supported each other in our leadership efforts at UIUC, Jazmin has inspired me and fueled my passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Congratulations to both Jazmin and Katie.”
Krueger has served on the Women Chemist Committee in multiple roles, including chair, and on the Student Wellness Coalition. She has sought collaboration with other student groups like SACNAS, advocating for more representation of women of color and serving as a bridge between SACNAS and WCC. She helped facilitate a co-sponsorship for the Latinas in STEM panel and SACNAS-invited speakers. As Invited Speaker Chair for WCC, she brought in Indian, Asian, and Black speakers, and as a part of the Stoesser Lecture selection committee at UIUC, two Black speakers and a Hispanic speaker visited campus.
“She totally understands that diverse speakers provide a critical and unwritten message that everyone is welcome in our field,” said one of her nominators. “Sarah’s interest in inclusive leadership and effectiveness over the past several years is quite evident to anyone who knows her… Sarah has been a mentor to undergraduate students of American, Chinese, African, Indian, and Korean descent, and all have flourished under her supervision.”
As director of the East Central Illinois ACS Undergraduate Research Conference, Krueger worked with SACNAS and the National Organization for the Professional Advancements of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) to invite Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to the conference, sent representatives to regional SACNAS & NOBCChE events to personally invite undergraduate students, instituted travel awards to fund undergraduate attendance and poster printing, added a networking breakfast to the conference program that included undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff, and made personal connections with students and faculty in attendance from minority-serving institutions to invite them back in subsequent years.
As a result, the 2019 conference (4th annual) featured presenters that self-identified as 56% female, 15% Chicano, Hispanic, or Native-American, and 9% Black.
Looking to the future, Krueger said she wants to be a professor at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI) and continue to focus on making the sciences inclusive, equitable, and accessible to all people.
Aguilar-Romero also aspires to be a professor at a predominantly undergraduate institution, or an academic advisor for undergraduate students. She partly credits SACNAS with her success as an undergraduate.
“Upon arriving to UIUC, I knew the importance of finding and maintaining a similar community, but this was initially difficult as one of few women of color in my cohort,” she said. “Over time, being a part of SACNAS and the Student Wellness Coalition made it possible to find allies and friends throughout the department. We support one another and push each other to come up with new initiatives, be inclusive of all students, and make our ideas reality. Through these efforts and through directly reaching out to students of color, my hope is that the chemistry department can become a place where students of all backgrounds consistently succeed and obtain a PhD in chemistry without unnecessary barriers. However, a lot of work from all levels of the department must be done to get there.”