‘Incredible impact’: This researcher is bolstering STEM students and inspiring university DEI efforts

Dr. Tam’ra-Kay Francis, a post doctoral research associate in the University of Washington’s Department of Chemistry. (Photo courtesy of Francis)

Dr. Tam’ra-Kay Francis was feeling a little nervous.

The confession was a surprise given all she has accomplished. Francis, who goes by TK, has a masters degree in chemistry for research on nanowires and a Ph.D. in science education. Four years ago she became a post doctoral research associate in the University of Washington’s Department of Chemistry — and one of only a handful of Black post docs at the UW.

In that role, Francis has spearheaded multiple programs to support minority students in science and facilitated game-changing discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, with UW staff. Colleagues and students praise her efforts, nominating her for the university’s prestigious Outstanding Public Service Award.

And yet in the countdown to her presentation last month as the closing speaker for the DEI Forum held across the three UW campuses, Francis was anxious.

“She’s had an incredible impact on initiatives across the university.”

She need not have been. Francis’ talk was a journey through her diversity-focused work, giving examples of its widespread impacts, which have inspired others to build on and carry the lessons forward.

“When you’re intentional about the things you are doing, the work will continue,” Francis said to the session’s nearly 200 attendees.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Francis accelerated her efforts. In a matter of weeks she launched PR²ISM (Pedagogy and Research on Race, Identity, Social Justice and Meaning), a program that included 24 events that year with 59 facilitators from around the nation and 2,546 participants. Its aim is to create an inclusive environment at the UW, uniting disparate initiatives already underway, and with a focus on STEM fields.

She is also the co-lead of a new STEM mentor training program, co-founded the UW Postdoc Diversity Alliance, and collaborates with the Black Student Union, among other efforts.

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“She’s had an incredible impact on initiatives across the university,” said Dr. Ronald Kwon, an associate professor in the UW Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine.

Kwon met Francis through the PR²ISM panels and workshops. He was impressed with the speed in which she organized the events and the quality of speakers, as well as her ability to bring so many departments together. Kwon served on a committee at the university that developed a multi-year DEI plan. Many of the strategies they’re using, he said, “can be traced back to content discussed at the workshops.”

Dr. Jim Pfaendtner is the UW Chemical Engineering department chair and associate vice provost for research computing. He has worked with Francis through the mentoring program she created: Strategies and Tools for Equity Minded Mentoring (in STEM). The training serves faculty, post-docs and graduate students.

From left to right: Dr. Ronald Kwon, associate professor UW Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine; Sumaya Addish, UW undergraduate and BlackPast author; and Dr. Jim Pfaendtner, UW Chemical Engineering department chair. (UW Photos)

“It’s this holistic approach to student- or trainee-centric mentoring that is good for everybody, and particularly important when you’re bringing in students from historically excluded backgrounds,” Pfaendtner said.

Thought leaders like Francis “are giving us the tools that we haven’t had and the intellectual leadership,” he said. “Her research and thinking is in real-time making an impact.”

More recently Francis proposed and received funding for student internships with the BlackPast history platform. BlackPast is the most comprehensive African American and African history website in the U.S. and was launched 15 years ago by UW professor emeritus Quintard Taylor. It features roughly 8,000 entries.

The internship pays students to contribute entries specifically about Black scientists. Francis hopes it can inspire minority students who might struggle to find STEM role models.

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“TK plays the role of not just a mentor, but an older sister.”

For the students, “you’re writing these stories and you’re seeing possibilities,” she said. “You’re seeing pathways.”

Three undergraduates participated in the internship last year, and there’s funding for six more this year. UW biochemistry major Sumaya Addish was part of the first cohort.

She was happy to write about “Black scientists who have been overlooked for so long,” Addish said. “It was nice to see people who looked liked me doing great things in the scientific field.”

Francis is also a mentor for Addish, helping her select her classes, navigate grad school applications and providing life advice in general. “TK plays the role of not just a mentor,” Addish said, “but an older sister.”

This spring, Francis helped organize a series of talks called “Reimagining Mentoring” that features speakers from around the country and launched online at the end of April. The target audience is inclusive, available to everyone at the university.

Francis is “an incredible human,” Pfaendtner said, “and a great contributor to our whole campus.”

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