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W&M students awarded doctoral fellowships aimed at fostering diversity in academia

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    SREB Scholars:  From left to right: Tina Naik, Jordan Hines, Charris Gabaldon and Malachi Tripaldi.  Photos by Stephen Salpukas
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Charris Gabaldon is preparing for a new age of information — quantum information.

A first-year graduate student in William & Mary’s Department of Physics, Gabaldon is readying for the age of quantum computing with the help of her advisor, Irina Novikova, a professor in the department.

“The work Dr. Novikova does in the lab falls within the realm of quantum information science, which is ultimately what I’m interested pursuing, because the physics gets really weird there,” Gabaldon said. “There are different ways of looking at how matter and light interact. You can look at it classically, semi classically and then in a quantum way. Depending on how you want to look at it, you can observe different behaviors, so it’s really about the perspective you bring, which I find fascinating.”

Malachi Tripaldi, a first year graduate student in W&M’s Department of Anthropology, is also fascinated by the science of perspective, but at a scale a bit larger than subatomic particles. Tripaldi is working under professors Michael Blakey and Joseph Jones in W&M’s Institute for Historical Biology.

Located within W&M’s Department of Anthropology, IHB states it aims to “foster new ways of understanding biological variation and change partly by encouraging researchers to be considerate of the cultural assumptions and motivations involved in research design.”

Gabaldon and Tripaldi were recently awarded Doctoral Scholars Program Fellowships of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), a program aimed at increasing diversity among college and university faculty. Gabaldon and Tripaldi are institutional awardees, meaning their selections were determined at the university level. 

Two Ph.D. students in William & Mary’s Department of Applied Science were also recently awarded fellowships. Tina Naik is a state doctoral scholar, a recipient of a prestigious three-year fellowship funded and awarded by the Commonwealth of Virginia. First-year Ph.D. student Jordan Hines was accepted as an institute scholar in the SREB program. 

“This program is really exciting because it facilitates diversity in ranges of thinking,” Gabaldon said. “There is diversity on one level, in that it matters who the folks are that you bring into the room, but there is also diversity in the way you think about various fields, and that really matters – for the sake of science.” 

For decades, William & Mary students have competed for and intermittently earned SREB State Doctoral Scholarships. The fellowships are highly competitive, with less than 10 fully-funded scholarships awarded within the entire state. SREB recently entered into a formal institutional partnership with William & Mary.

Once a university becomes an institutional partner, it can nominate its students as scholars, provided it makes a three-year financial commitment to fund stipends, tuition and all SREB administrative fees for the student fellows.

“Two years ago, when I learned that W&M could become an institutional partner, I started militating to do so in order to take advantage of the terrific mentoring and professional development support the SREB program provides to their doctoral scholars,” said Virginia Torczon, W&M’s dean of graduate studies and research and Chancellor Professor of Computer Science. “This last fall, we agreed to proceed and formally entered a Memorandum of Agreement with the SREB.” 

Now, thanks to the new institutional partnership, all doctoral programs at W&M, including the W&M’s School of Education and W&M’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, can nominate a student as a scholar. Gabaldon, Tripaldi and Hines are the first cohort of institutional scholars, under William & Mary’s new partnership with SREB.

“This is another wonderful opportunity to partner with SREB,” said Chon Glover, the university’s chief diversity officer. “I have been working with SREB for over 10 years in cultivating connections with the scholars in the program to recruit them for entry-level faculty positions and to encourage their participation in the university’s IGNITE Future Faculty Program.”

Glover said that working with Ansley Abraham, director of SREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program, was deeply beneficial for W&M – and will continue to be so as the university works to fulfill goals within W&M’s new Inclusive Excellence Framework.

“Choosing to be an institutional member to provide our scholars these unique opportunities for mentorship and advocacy will ensure that our students excel,” Glover added. “We are committed to ensuring that our diverse scholars are supported and mentored in ways that promote their success in academia.” 

The SREB website states that more than a third of U.S. college students are people of color, but that racial and ethnic minorities continue to make up only a small fraction of faculties in higher education: 5 percent are African American, 3 percent are Hispanic and about 1 percent are Native American. 

“When I think back on all of my years of education, I never had a single Black teacher,” said Tripaldi, who studied archaeology and chemistry as an undergrad at Northern Michigan University. “It’s amazing to have two Black male mentors at IHB, because they're pretty rare, at least in the field of anthropology right now.”

SREB was founded in 1948 as the first interstate compact for education. Gov. Ralph Northam is Virginia’s lead representative to the board of SREB, which encompasses 16 states. Financial support, including funds for the Doctoral Scholars Program, comes from the member states, supplemented by private foundations and grants. Its mission is to improve the academic success of all minority groups at levels from kindergarten up to the highest levels of higher education.

As an undergraduate, Tripaldi focused his research on Native Americans in Michigan’s copper country, but always felt uneasy about speaking for a demographic that he was not a part of. That’s when he started to think about researching the African diaspora – and discovered Blakey’s descendant-led approach to archaeology.

“I realized that I didn't like speaking for the Native Americans without them being there, or putting voices in other people's mouths,” Tripaldi said. “When you look at what Dr. Blakey did with New York’s African Burial Ground, he created the template for community outreach, for making sure that the descendant community is involved in the process, every step of the way. That’s the way I want to engage with this work.”

Gabaldon also hopes to ultimately help people communicate better, but her toolbox will be filled with the “cool toys” of the future, she says. “I’m interested in using the general science of scientific measurements in the quantum world to think about how we can better encrypt data and enhance communications in quantum computing.”

In the near term, Gabaldon’s priority is preparing for the qualifying exams, which she will take over the summer to officially become a Ph.D. candidate. Tripaldi also has shorter-term goals, like successfully completing coursework. He says he’s excited to meet the rest of his W&M SREB cohort, and talk about something other than his area of study.

“You get in a little box when you’re in anthropology. Everyone you know is doing anthropology and we’re all doing similar things,” he said. “It’s really easy to get in that rabbit hole, so it’s going to be great to have other people to bounce ideas off of.”