Professor Zahra Fakhraai’s Remarks on Starting Her Tenure as Graduate Chair

TUESDAY, JUNE 19, 2018

I am excited to be Chemistry’s next graduate chair, starting on July 1. I look forward to getting to know the chemistry graduate students better and learning more about the various aspects of this position, including graduate education, admissions, and graduate student life in the department. I thought that this letter was a good opportunity for me to lay out my priorities and tell you what I am hoping to achieve in the next few years. This will give me a chance to open a dialogue, to hear your feedback, and to adjust my plans as I get started.

Graduate school is likely the most important step in defining your future career. While your area of research, your adviser, and your peers in your research groups can play the most important role in shaping that future, the structures set in place by Chemistry and Penn in general can help guarantee your success. As graduate chair, I will be responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of the existing structures and considering various ways of improving them.

I need to acknowledge that, over the past few years, Prof. Baumgart has made a great number of positive changes to our program and has started many new initiatives that I will continue. As a result, many of the ideas described here are an extension of efforts that have already begun and that I hope to continue. I would also like to acknowledge that our department’s executive director, Dr. Kersten Forsthoefel, has been supportive of many of these ideas and has helped us shape and implement them. Finally, I am extremely lucky to have the support of our amazing graduate coordinator, Kristen Muscat, who brings a wealth of knowledge to the table.

Department Climate Committee

First and foremost, we have a great need to hear directly from our graduate students. Currently, the graduate committee consists of a group of faculty from the four divisions, as well as faculty recruiters who primarily focus on admitting a new cohort of graduate students. The graduate committee advises the graduate chair on policy changes, which are ultimately disseminated as changes to the graduate student handbook or announcements made to our students. These policies are thus shaped by the faculty’s priorities and knowledge of the issues. Typically, we only hear from students when there is a crisis, and students often relay their concerns through the graduate coordinator. However, we need more direct involvement of our students earlier in our decision-making processes, not just as a reactive response to a crisis. Efforts to form a committee of students who would serve in an advisory role are already underway, and one of my top priorities is to think about the process of selecting its members and work with the committee on my other priorities, mentioned below.


As I form this committee, it is important for me ensure that all of the diverse voices in our graduate student body are heard. Men and women, domestic and international students, and members of underrepresented minority groups sometimes have different challenges, concerns, or aspirations that need to be addressed. The membership of the climate committee will need to reflect our diversity without overburdening underrepresented students.

More broadly, it is imperative for us to improve diversity and inclusion in all aspects of our graduate program, including admissions, acceptance rate, department activities, retention, and graduation. While we have had some success in admitting more women to our program, they are burdened with most of the extracurricular activities in the department (in large part, thanks to the Women in Chemistry group, who are doing a fantastic job), and the women’s graduation rate lags behind the department average. Moreover, compared to our peer schools, we are not making any noticeable progress in admitting and successfully graduating underrepresented minority students. The numbers are mostly just fluctuations around zero. We cannot expect to do the same thing and achieve better results. The pool of our applicants is not going to improve itself as a result of the simple outreach efforts we have been using over the past few years. While I do think that outreach to the community is an important effort, it is not an effort that improves our diversity and inclusion.

There are concrete steps that we may be able to take. To encourage underrepresented students to join Penn Chemistry, we need to provide them with resources, and for that we need to raise funds. For example, AGEP (Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate) is a federally funded program to encourage hiring graduate students of color. At present, Penn is not part of an AGEP alliance, unlike other schools in Philly, which have successfully used these programs to their advantage. As a result, we cannot compete in attracting strong students of color to our program. Programs such as AGEP, LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation), and GEM fellowships provide resources that can be tapped. Getting access to these resources will require a concerted effort, and Chemistry can lead these efforts, working with other STEM departments to encourage SAS and the Penn administration to submit appropriate proposals and applications.. In general, raising funds for graduate student scholarships can also give every student a better chance of joining their preferred research group, as it can separate the process from funding available to the individual faculty.


It is also important to acknowledge that diversity cannot be improved without providing support and a nurturing environment in which students can thrive. Better departmental support is much needed for the success and wellness of every graduate student in our program. Improving the department climate, providing sensitivity training for students and faculty, improving requirements for graduate studies, and addressing mental health issues are some of the important aspects of a strong, supportive program that is focused on reducing stress and ensuring student success and wellness. Efforts are already underway to address some of these important aspects of our graduate program. We plan to organize more social events and more events focused on faculty and student training, as well as offering various programs that address stress and mental health in the department by tapping into resources on Penn’s campus. We are all members of the Chemistry family, and we can all help each other to make the department a more nurturing environment. Social events can help us know and support each other better.

Graduate Education

Beyond providing students with an opportunity to work in an innovative research environment, there are various other aspects to our graduate education mission. Chemistry is an ever-changing field, and innovation in chemistry needs to be followed by changes to our class offerings and perhaps the way the divisions are represented in our first year classes. For example, materials chemistry, particularly nanoscience, has seen a rapid growth in the past few decades. While we have more faculty with research focused on materials than we did ten years ago, we do not offer a specific first year track in this field. Our classes are based on traditional definitions of divisions in chemistry that sometimes cannot accommodate training for interdisciplinary research. I plan to work with the graduate committee to review our class offerings and discuss how we can provide more flexible and modern class requirements by tapping into existing classes on campus, by working with physics, CBE, and others on providing joint classes, and potentially by teaching new classes within chemistry. Another important structural change that will be implemented for the incoming cohort of graduate students is a proposal writing requirement, which is aimed at training our students to be independent thinkers and scholars beyond their immediate research areas.

Other potential changes in our core education policies will involve thinking about committee selection for graduate students, the roles and responsibilities of committee members, clearer policies for the reporting of concerns by graduate students, reporting and preventing bullying and harassment, and clearer policies regarding working hours and vacation. I will work with the climate and graduate committees to implement these goals and plan new paths for the education of our graduate students.

I would like to hear from you as I get started and I am happy to discuss any of these topics in more details.

Professor Zahra Fakhraai