Advocating for others

Callie Gustafson champions inclusive and equitable spaces for incoming and current students. 
February 15, 2022

Callie Gustafson is in the final stretch of her Ph.D. in the lab of Laura Gammill, an associate professor in Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development (GCD). 

The Gammill Lab studies a cell type that only appears in early development. These cells — known as neural crest cells — morph into a variety of structures. They make up the bones and cartilage in faces and pigment cells in the skin. Describing normal neural crest cell development will allow researchers to better understand what causes neural crest-derived birth defects, including cleft lip and cleft palate, to arise.

Despite greatly enjoying the lab culture and the research now, Gustafson’s decision to pursue a graduate degree wasn’t clear-cut.

“After I finished my undergraduate degree, I worked with a sexist and rude mentor. That almost entirely squashed my desire to go into science,” she shares.

This experience stuck with Gustafson. Now she’s a graduate student representative on the GCD Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, and working to ensure that other students don’t encounter similar situations. Over the past year, the committee focused on improving the process of matching students with faculty mentors. In the past, there hasn’t been a clear-cut way for students to determine a faculty member’s commitment to DEI work. Gustafson wants to make it easier to find a good fit.  

“We want to ensure when students are placed with faculty mentors, those mentors are committed to creating a safe environment for each student,” says Gustafson. The committee is set on improving this process and opening communication channels.

The committee is also planning to host a workshop for labs to develop DEI pledges. In this workshop, faculty will tailor pledges that work for their lab. While a date hasn’t been set yet, the committee hopes to host the first workshop in fall 2022.

Gustafson is deeply inspired by this work and plans to pursue a position where she can work in a similar capacity full time.

“Some of my identities have directly touched my career as a scientist, some not quite as much. But because of all of that, it’s been a passion of mine to advocate for more inclusion and access to safe resources and safe spaces.” —Claire Wilson