A Chemistry professor active in promoting diversity and inclusion at the University, Nicolai Lehnert was one of five UM faculty awarded a Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award by the University in 2018. Lehnert is a professor of chemistry and biophysics in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
The Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award, named for a dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, was established in 1996 to recognize faculty at the University of Michigan who contribute to the development of a culturally and ethnically diverse campus community. It includes a $5,000 stipend.
Believing that the successful development of new scientists is crucial to each individual discipline, to the University more broadly, and to the STEM fields overall, Lehnert said, "It is nice to get recognition for all the hard work that was required to reach here and that this award also was possible due to concerted efforts of the departmental staff whose help has been crucial."
Professor Lehnert is active in promoting diversity and inclusion at the University. He recruits students from historically underrepresented and underserved populations to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and math. He created and leads the UM Detroit Research Internship Summer Experience (D-RISE) program which brings students from Detroit's Cass Technical High School to the university for seven weeks over the summer for a research internship. The D-RISE students perform research in the laboratories of chemistry faculty for seven weeks while living on campus. The vision of D-RISE is to inspire students to be interested in science, as well as make them understand that STEM fields are not limited to medical and engineering degrees.
“The most important hallmark of this program is that the high school students do not just observe their graduate student or postdoctoral mentors in the laboratory,"Lehnert said, "but they perform full-time, hands-on research for 40 hours per week on projects that are directly related to the Ph.D. students’ graduate work or the postdoctoral fellows’ research projects.”
Since the program’s inception, 85% of participants from the 2014-17 programs are now attending U-M, with the remaining students attending Harvard University, Stanford and Wayne State University.
The hands-on work with graduate students in lab settings was one of the highlights of the program according to many participating students. “Yes I would [recommend the program] because it is a great opportunity to work alongside graduate students doing research and it actually gives the students a sense of what doctorate school is like. The staff was great and the University of Michigan is a great university.”
“The experience itself was nothing short of amazing. Getting to work in an actual lab and do research alongside undergraduate and graduate students was an experience that I will never forget. The freedoms that we were given as to exploring were prefect, I feel like if I were to attend the University of Michigan I would have a pretty good understanding of the campus and campus life. The graduate students that we worked with were very helpful with teaching us the material and making sure that we understood it.”
But Lehnert’s work to increase inclusivity across the university goes beyond D-RISE. As chair of the Department of Chemistry's Diversity Committee, Lehnert was the department's liaison for the NextProf Science Workshop, which is focused in part on helping underrepresented minority scientists to learn about the faculty application process. Postdoctoral candidates from across the country can apply for this workshop which runs for a week. The aim is to mentor these candidates in their search for academic faculty positions as well as to attract this talent pool as future faculties for the Chemistry Department.
MCORE Preview Visits
Nicolai Lehnert has also been part of the Michigan Chemistry Opportunities for Research and Education (MCORE) program, which is headed by Chemistry Professor Nils Walter. This program invites approximately ten highly qualified prospective students to the University of Michigan Chemistry Department for an all-expense-paid visit to explore the Chemistry graduate program. “This program has been extremely successful for recruiting students from low-income homes, students who are first-generation college students, or students whose backgrounds are underrepresented in academia,” said Lehnert. He thinks it’s crucial to make students feel comfortable and included as well as imprint on their minds that there are no wrong questions when choosing graduate schools.
As Lehnert continues his work on diversity inclusion, he’s optimistic about the effects programs like these might have on society: “Success on smaller levels will bring about a big change in the future.”