Graduate and undergraduate students have come together to help create a more inclusive and diverse experience in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Nearly a dozen students joined with female faculty to organize Women and Gender Minorities in Chemical Engineering, or WIC+. Leaders of the newly registered student organization say it will provide support, mentorship, and career development opportunities, as well as encourage faculty and student interaction. 

The group has welcomed interested students to informational meetings and will sponsor a panel discussion at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference that Virginia Tech is hosting in April, said Neeti Gandhi, one of the founders. More than 300 chemical engineering students from 25 universities are expected to attend the conference.

Gandhi, a graduate student in the department, said the WIC+ committee was inspired by the national Women in Chemical Engineering group, which according to its mission statement, “seeks to create opportunities for networking, mentorship, and leadership development for women in academia and industry.”

WIC+ at Virginia Tech took that mission a step further. The committee decided to expand the name and scope of the campus organization to send a strong message of inclusivity. Transgender and nonbinary students and allies are explicitly included.

“There's so much more diversity out there that needs to be considered,” Gandhi said. “We want to create a group where everyone can feel welcome.”

Xakin Ramirez Isunza is a third-year graduate student working on carbon capture in Stephen Martin's laboratory. 

"As a nonbinary person, I am not comfortable joining women-only groups," Isunza said. "I recognize they are important and valuable spaces, particularly in the male-dominated field that is engineering, but since I am not a woman they tend not to be my thing. I think the inclusive and welcoming climate will build up in time as the group becomes established. But a good first step is to make the language clear in the name of the group and all subsequent advertising."

Anyone who supports the organization’s goals is encouraged to join, Gandhi said.

Neeti Gandhi in laboratory
Neeti Gandhi, president of the Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Association, helped organize the new Women and Gender Minorities in Chemical Engineering organization. Photo by Tonia Moxley for Virginia Tech.

WIC+ and similar groups, including campus chapters of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers, support the university’s InclusiveVT goals. Providing support for underserved and underrepresented students and faculty is a major part of Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission and a core value of the College of Engineering. Many of the university’s more than 800 registered student organizations provide targeted support for students in various disciplines and demographics.

Chemical engineering has made progress in diversifying the gender makeup of its student body. In 2013-14, about 25 percent of students identified as female. Today, 36 percent of enrolled students are women, according to university figures. Data on transgender and nonbinary students has not traditionally been tracked.

WIC+ co-founder and senior Yasmin Farzan was already dedicated to empowering underrepresented students at Virginia Tech. As an Iranian American student, she has been active in the Iranian Society at Virginia Tech and the Middle Eastern and North African community as well as Model United Nations at Virginia Tech. Now she has added advocacy for women and gender minorities.

“There are so many women in the department who need resources and role models that show us what we can achieve,” Farzan said. “So we wanted to build more opportunities for mentorship for undergrads and graduate students. We thought this would be beneficial to the chemical engineering department as a whole.”

Department head Steven Wrenn praised the organizers for helping chemical engineering become an even more welcoming academic community.

“I’m grateful that our students are so committed to supporting one another and creating a community of learning to welcome an ever-more diverse student body,” Wrenn said. “This dovetails with our efforts to attract and retain the most talented students and prepare chemical engineers to meet the critical challenges facing a diverse society.”

All three of the department’s female faculty — Padma Rajagopalan, Abby Whittington, and Sheima Khatib — are involved as advisors. Khatib recently joined the faculty. She said mentors have been important in her career, and she wants to provide the same kind of support to today’s students.

“I think that by sharing my own experiences with students, I might be able to help them avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered, help inspire them to overcome challenges, and even feel comfortable with occasionally making mistakes,” Khatib said.

Khatib did her academic work in Spain. There, chemical engineering conferences and university departments had higher percentages of women, she said. In the U.S., there are generally more men in the discipline. WIC+ and similar groups can provide academic and career support and improve the sense of belonging for underrepresented students.

“I do think it's important for students to interact with female professors and learn about their career paths,” Khatib said. “And more importantly they can learn about how others overcome challenging situations, which is why I want to be a part of WIC+.”

Share this story