Zia Isola first came to UC Santa Cruz over 13 years ago. In addition to her primary role as Director of the Genomics Institute’s Office of Diversity Programs, she is a winter quarter lecturer in the Biomolecular Engineering Department at the Baskin School of Engineering. As a first-generation student, Isola knows the power of mentorship and the importance of ensuring all students have equal access to academic and professional development opportunities.
Tell me about your role at Baskin Engineering.
My main job is Director of the Genomics Institute’s Office of Diversity Programs. In that capacity, I manage an undergraduate diversity research training program, known as the Research Mentoring Internship (RMI) program. We primarily work with groups who have been historically underrepresented in STEM and genomics. The program is an inclusion initiative to make research more accessible. The RMI scholars are placed in labs to get hands-on research training and a mentored introduction to the culture of research, with the hopes that they’ll go on to pursue careers in genomics. In addition to that, we provide professional development workshops. I also help with graduate student recruiting and am on diversity committees for campus and the Genomics Institute. Through funding by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and with supplemental funding from the office of the EVC, we are able to provide scholarships and research training for about 18 students each year.
What are a couple projects that you’re working on currently that you’d like to share?
For the past five years, my office ran a summer program (NIH-BD2K) that partnered with other Hispanic-serving institutions to bring students to UCSC for an eight-week research experience in computational genomics. Based on the enthusiastic response interest in BD2K, our committee was inspired to create a free bioinformatics and coding summer course that meets every day for four weeks. The course is being offered to lower division students and students from community colleges. We hope the course will be especially helpful as a way for transfer students to gain research experience and familiarity with coding basics before transferring to a four-year university.
One project we’ve been working campus-wide on is how we can increase the number of resources available to BIPOC students to help with retention and academic and professional support. In my role on the Genomics Institute diversity committee, I feel we’ve done quite a few things in the year since the committee was formed, including helping leadership identify priority actions that will build a more inclusive community within the Institute. Most recently, we worked with our communications office to create a one-pager of HR guidelines for fair and equitable hiring practices to share with departments and faculty affiliates within the Genomics Institute to help them become more attuned to what fair hiring means and what the campus guidelines are around fair and equitable hiring practices.
A lot of the work you do at Baskin Engineering helps to promote diversity and inclusion. What’s it like to be part of such an important effort?
It’s immensely fulfilling. I’m really grateful that I get to do this work, especially because I have a personal connection of being a first-gen student myself. I’ve been in education my whole life, and as a teacher, you want to see students succeed. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to work with students not only on their intellectual development, but also to be able to play a role in empowering them in their personal and professional lives.
What’s one of your favorite things about working at the Baskin School of Engineering?
The range of possibilities. I’m in a really lucky position where I get to work with faculty, staff, and students, and to have the opportunity to collaborate and see impact on a wide range of initiatives and programs.
What inspires you the most about the students of Baskin Engineering?
Their heart. The French word for heart is “coeur,” which is the etymological root of the word courage. So many of our students have the challenge of being the first in their family to go to college, the first to consider graduate school, or of being the first to be in a STEM field. It’s intimidating to leave what is familiar and step into new territory. They embrace that challenge with such heart, commitment, determination, and passion. It’s completely inspiring.