As a graduate student in chemistry at Illinois, Anita Wo has always been at the forefront of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
A fourth-year inorganic chemistry doctoral student in professor Cathy Murphy’s group, Wo’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion within the Department of Chemistry were formally recognized at the Gender Equity and Inclusion in the Chemical Sciences (GEICS) conference on Aug. 20 when she received the 2022 Inclusive Leadership Award.
Claudia Berdugo-Díaz, a Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering graduate student in the research group of professor David W. Flaherty, received the runner-up GEICS Inclusive Leadership Award.
These awards were established in 2019 to recognize graduate students in chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering who are models of inclusive excellence through their commitment to promoting full and equal participation of women, people of color, persons with disabilities, persons of differing sexual orientations, and gender identities in research and teaching.
The recipient receives an engraved award presented at the annual Gender Equity in Chemical Sciences Conference in August and up to $1,000 toward participation in conferences, procuring research materials, supplies, books, additional certifications, or other professional development activities. The runner-up receives up to $500 sponsored by the Women Chemists Committee.
Wo said she is very honored to receive this award.
“To me, the existence of this award is vital since it actively acknowledges and highlights the often unnoticed or undervalued DEI efforts made by students. The diverse backgrounds of our graduate population require that we provide a welcoming academic environment – one where all graduate students and postdocs, particularly those from minority or marginalized groups, are well supported in their research goals and encouraged to thrive,” Anita said.
Anita has been part of several organizations in a leadership position in her three years at UIUC, and she has become interested in pursuing a non-traditional career path focusing on outcomes related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Currently, Wo is chair of the Student Wellness Coalition (SWC) and the American Chemical Society’s East Central Illinois Women Chemists Committee (WCC). She has also previously served as the social events chair for WCC and as a general representative for SWC. Also, she was part of the Women in Chemistry Retreat Planning Committee in 2020 and the Allies in STEM planning committee in 2021.
Wo was nominated for this year’s award by several of her graduate student peers in the Department of Chemistry and by her advisor.
In their nomination, they said that in addition to Wo’s work in various organizations, she “has continuously championed efforts to be inclusive of People of Color, the LGBTQ+ committee and international students in the department.”
One of her peers said that before graduate school, their personal understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues was limited.
“My growth in the understanding of these issues has been greatly enhanced by my interactions with Anita Wo. Anita is very informed about DEI issues and is passionate about putting in the hard work to see these visions become reality…she has a way of speaking about these issues that is not accusatory or blaming; she instead uses logic to invite open-minded thinking, and these conversations have been instrumental to my understanding of the meanings of true equity and inclusion. She is a great listener to everyone, regardless of their background,” the nominator said, adding that Wo has a unique gift for bringing out the best in people.
“She makes everyone feel seen and worthy. I am eternally grateful for our conversations and feel there is no better example of an attitude of inclusion in our department.”
Wo said she gives credit to graduate students before her who focused on DEI work.
“Many graduate students before me have laid down the groundwork that we in the (chemistry) department have continuously been building upon. With this award, I hope that it inspires and motivates future students to promote a culture of diversity and inclusion within the department.”
A native of Colombia, Claudia is a sixth-year doctoral student who is looking forward to a career in industry where she can help make the world more sustainable.
Claudia has consistently been involved in DEI organizations during her graduate school career, including UIUC GradSWE as treasurer, ChBE Graduate Student Advisory Council as outreach coordinator, and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Affinity Groups (AG).
She also participates in outreach activities focusing on marginalized and underrepresented communities through organizations that include the UIUC Student Chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicano/Hispanic and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS), Letters to a pre-scientist, and Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation of Colombia, among others.
Claudia said she is thankful for her friend and nominator Chris Torres, and she is honored to receive the runner-up award, because it truly reminds her of the power of service and the joy it brings to her daily life.
“This is a testament to those who have taught me about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and a reminder that there is still much more to be done to reshape the power structure so that we can make ‘differences’ a resource for learning and innovation,” Claudia said.
Torres said that Claudia has been a very effective, impactful mentor to undergraduate students in ChBE, demonstrating a compassion and empathy toward colleagues and peers that enables her to develop meaningful relationships with everyone around her.
“And her advice resonates with others who are much stronger because of it,” Torres said, adding that Claudia enthusiastically encourages female members of the group to gather regularly through “girls’ lunch,” a counterspace that allows for sharing experiences and frustrations, celebrating achievements and maintaining a positive climate.
“Such counter spaces are beneficial for underrepresented groups to feel safe and be heard, which are frustrations often expressed by marginalized groups in STEM fields,” Torres said. “She has also devoted her Diversity Minutes (5-minute presentation in weekly group meetings) to discuss issues of women representation in the engineering and catalysis field with topics about how to increase women retention in academia and to raise awareness about diversity in award recipients in the catalysis field,” he said.
By Tracy Crane, Department of Chemistry