Director Asmeret Asefaw Berhe (a Black woman in a black suit) stands at a podium in front of a large screen, speaking to a group of people at desks in a classroom-style room.
Director Berhe spoke to students and faculty at South Mountain Community College about opportunities to work at and collaborate with the national labs.
Image courtesy of Chloe Koseff

The room buzzed with conversation, until the moderator attempted to quiet it for a second time. Slowly, discussions paused and heads turned back towards the front of the room. “I’m glad to see everyone has been so engaged with their conversations over the past fifteen minutes, but sadly it is time to say goodbye to your current table and move to your next conversation.”   

After reminding the audience to exchange contact information, the moderator put down her mic and the room slowly morphed into the next phase of the speed networking session. New conversations emerged. On one side of the tables sat representatives from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science and leadership from the national laboratories.  On the other side sat students, faculty, and administrators from the university that was graciously hosting the visiting DOE and national lab guests. This was the third trip in a three-part series of trips under the banner of the Office of Science’s Fostering Great Minds and Great Ideas initiative. By this time, the organization team had gotten the “speed networking” sessions down to a science. 

The Fostering Great Minds and Great Ideas tour, led by Office of Science Director Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, has been an overwhelming success. The Office of Science is committed to shaping the future of the U.S. science and technology workforce. It is important that that workforce is as vibrant and diverse as the communities and institutions that serve the vast talent pool that exists across the nation. To this end, Director Berhe has prioritized engaging with emerging research institutions (ERIs), historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and minority serving institutions (MSIs). In these efforts, the Office of Science is working to increase awareness about our investments, discuss ongoing efforts to make the funding process more equitable, and boost the programs available to these institutions through both development programs as well as grants to support capacity building. 

The triad of trips started in Atlanta in October 2023 with a visit to four historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs): Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Fort Valley State University. For the pilot trip of the series, the Office of Science rallied 18 representatives from eight of the national labs. This group included four lab directors! Director Berhe remarked that during the trip the enthusiasm from the institutions was incredible. She could just feel the excitement coming from a place like Fort Valley State University, which is small and not accustomed to receiving such attention.  

The second trip of the tour took Director Berhe along with 16 representatives from 10 national labs to the state of Oklahoma in January 2024. This two-day visit focused on engagements with ERIs, including the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa as well as one Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institute (NASNTI), the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.  

Stuart Henderson, director of Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility and one of the trip attendees remarked, “Our visits were eye-opening, inspiring, and energizing. It’s clear that there is so much enthusiasm, opportunity, and potential at universities that may not already have established programs with the DOE. As a national lab complex, we’re in a great position to help tap that potential and make good on those opportunities.”  

Each of the Oklahoma universities welcomed the group with open arms. Tours of their facilities engaged the national lab visitors. Round table networking sessions brought students and faculty into conversations with the national labs in a way they have never had the opportunity to do before. 

A group of people of different races and genders around a round table, discussing something. There are many other tables in the background with people at them.
“Speed networking” sessions were an important and valued part of many of the university visits.
Image courtesy of Chloe Koseff

The third round of the Fostering Great Minds tour was the biggest. It reached the most institutions as well as included the largest number of representatives from the national labs. In mid-February 2024, Director Berhe, along with 29 representatives from 15 national labs, embarked on a multi-part visit throughout the Southwest. The group first visited two Hispanic serving institutions (HSIs): University of Texas El Paso and New Mexico State University. In these places, they built relationships with rooms full of curious and energized students and faculty. Steve Cowley, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) remarked how incredibly useful it was to “forge new collaborations with faculty and students in Texas and New Mexico” and that it was exciting to access “new talent to push forward PPPL’s mission.” 

The southwest trip continued on to Phoenix, Arizona. Here, the group visited two projects funded by the Office of Science’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research. The Southwest Urban Integrated Field Lab led by Arizona State University (ASU) focuses its research on helping the public respond to extreme heat. The newly launched Climate Resilience Center out of Northern Arizona University (NAU) works to empower local and Indigenous communities to adapt to challenges from climate change.  

While visiting these large institutions, the group also made time for three stops at minority serving community colleges with large Hispanic and Native American populations: Estrella Mountain Community College, South Mountain Community College, and Coconino Community College. In addition, at NAU, the group met with representatives from Diné College.  

Stephen Streiffer, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was impressed by the enthusiasm of both the students and faculty. "The diversity of the portfolio and the interconnections on climate science represented by ASU and NAU – from the desert to the pine forests of the mountains – was amazing,” he said. “The rich engagement of ASU, NAU, and Coconino Community College – in particular the institutions’ engagement with their Native American communities - and the perspective this provides on how the DOE and the national labs can best connect to their goals, will be crucial.” 

These trips left a great impact on each of the representatives from the national labs, as well as on the universities’ students and faculty. The goal of the Fostering Great Minds tour was not a one-time outreach effort to a handful of universities. It is establishing the building blocks of a long-term relationship between the DOE’s national lab complex and institutions across the nation that serve communities that are minoritized in STEM. 

The seeds of these relationships are already growing from the earliest visits. After the October 2023 trip to Atlanta, a national lab has invited a professor from one of the colleges to give a guest lecture. In addition, multiple labs are working on building a workforce pipeline from one of the universities with specific programs. Lastly, there has been an uptick in applications for undergraduate internships from the schools that were visited.  

We at DOE’s Office of Science are excited to see where these new connections go and the impact these trips will continue to have into the future, fostering great minds and great ideas in our country. 


Author: Rebecca Gruener is a AAAS fellow in the Office of Science. She has a background in atmospheric science with a PhD in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University ’21.