When Zhi Li came across the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program online, he was excited about its support of an inclusive community with different backgrounds and perspectives. For Li, who grew up as a member of an Indigenous group in China, the quest for diversity in academia is more than just an idea – it’s a personal drive.
“I have some experience doing research in partnership with tribal communities, and I also wanted to leverage this platform as a postdoc fellow to try to bring people together – nowadays, we’re divided in communities, which means vulnerable ones don’t normally get valuable, usable information facing climate hazards,” said Li, who is working to bring equity to disaster preparedness with Professor Steven Gorelick through the fellowship program. “I saw the gap and I wanted to find my niche for my career.”
Li is one of three postdoctoral researchers selected to this year’s Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which seeks candidates who demonstrate promising scientific research as well as leadership potential in cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the Doerr School of Sustainability. The 2023-25 cohort also includes Areidy Beltran-Peña, who is working with Professor Noah Diffenbaugh, and Marvin Browne, who is working with Associate Professor Alexandra Konings. The program advances Stanford University’s IDEAL vision and commitment to diversity among its faculty, students, and staff.
“In all we do at the school, we’re focused on fostering real and lasting impact,” said Dean Arun Majumdar. “This fellowship program epitomizes that goal by supporting talented scholars doing critical work in sustainability while also taking dramatic steps toward bringing diverse perspectives to the academic pipeline.”
Securing a position as a postdoctoral researcher can be critical for academics, offering experience, independence, and mentorship valuable to the competitive process of becoming a professor. Yet opportunities are often informal arrangements through individual faculty members rather than through formal application processes, and there are not enough positions to address the talent pool, according to Professor Jonathan Payne, senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the Doerr School of Sustainability.
The Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program removes a significant barrier to entry by funding postdocs across disciplines through the school. Funded in part by the Morton K. Blaustein Visiting Faculty Fund, the fellowship carries an annual stipend for up to two years and includes an annual research stipend.
“We’re trying to give postdocs an opportunity to broaden their scientific horizons and develop more independence,” said Payne, who mentored a Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellow for 2021-23 when the program launched under the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “I think the Dean’s program is really well set up for that because the postdoc has funding from the school, can work in multiple labs, and is expected to develop an independent research profile that may even span multiple labs.”
The 2023-25 cohort
Li’s research has involved collaborating with tribal communities to understand how their living conditions are going to be affected by climate extremes and how they can become climate-ready nations in the United States. As a PhD student at the University of Oklahoma, he developed high-resolution flood inundation models to provide flood vulnerability and hazard information to local communities.
In working with Gorelick, Li hopes to expand his impact beyond the U.S. and into developing countries. Through the program, he also plans to promote the school’s DEI efforts as a DEI recruitment ambassador, encouraging individuals to apply to the program.
“In my community in China, I witnessed people dying from all kinds of climate disasters, like flooding and earthquakes – those memories have been in my heart, in my brain, for years,” Li said. “So I wanted to return what I’ve learned in the past to society.”
Beltran-Peña, who holds a PhD in environmental science from the University of California, Berkeley, researches the impacts of climate change on water resources and agricultural systems using integrated assessment and Earth system models at global and regional scales. She will be working with Diffenbaugh to develop a climate risk assessment framework for agriculture and energy systems reliant on mountain snowpack and precipitation under global warming.
The daughter of immigrants, Beltran-Peña is the first in her family to earn bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. She is passionate about inspiring other students to pursue higher education; her academic journey was recently featured in a UC Berkeley news story.
Marvin Browne earned a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. His research aims to better understand variation in plant responses to drought and the implementation of remote sensing tools to scale responses.
In working with Konings, Browne will be developing novel tools for remotely sensed drought tolerance, assessing variation in ecosystem hydrology estimates across time and space, and gauging implications for ecosystem functioning and forest vulnerability. A first-generation Trinidadian American raised in Washington, D.C., he looks forward to supporting efforts to embrace diverse ideas and people.
“We don’t create a specific set of expectations around how the postdocs should be leaders – we provide the platform and resources and they can take it any direction they want to contribute to a more diverse and inclusive space,” said Lupe Carrillo, director of DEI at the Doerr School of Sustainability.
The program was specifically formed to recruit more diverse perspectives, experiences, and scientific approaches into the postdoc pipeline, as well as seek out applicants from groups that have been historically underrepresented in the sciences, Carrillo said. The fellowship was among the first initiatives launched through the school’s DEI Action Plan.
“We not only have potential to create a more inclusive postdoc pipeline, but to also support early researchers who can be influential in the field as faculty and scientists,” Carrillo said.
As part of the program, the postdoctoral fellows participate in professional development and lunches with the dean and mentors. They also have access to broader efforts for connection in academia, including the University Research Alliance, a nine-university partnership that has the goal of diversifying the future professoriate nationally by creating robust professional development, mentoring, and networking opportunities.
“We want these postdoc fellows to have a network here at Stanford and beyond as they pursue faculty positions,” Carrillo said. “It’s also about expanding our own network of scientists at the Doerr School so we’re not relying on the same networks when recruiting and sharing opportunities.”
Building on success
Reflecting on his experience having a postdoctoral researcher in his lab through the fellowship for 2021-23, Payne emphasized the importance of cultivating leadership skills in support of the school’s commitment to diversity and research excellence. The fellow who worked in his lab, Pedro Monarrez, also worked with Associate Professor Erik Sperling on research in paleobiology and geobiology.
“The older I get, the less the students look at me as an immediate model of what they’re going to be in two years. But Pedro could do that, and he did it beautifully,” Payne said. “His life experiences and training are different from mine, so he was able to offer new scientific perspectives to my students and help them with problems that I wasn’t as well positioned to help with. For some of the students, his background was more similar to theirs than mine – for example, he was able to talk with them about being a first-generation student, which I’m not.”
Over the two years Monarrez worked as a postdoc through the program, he grew to become a senior member of the lab, running meetings when Payne wasn’t available. In several cases, Monarrez went into the field with graduate students to provide support and instruction that’s difficult to convey in the office.
“With all of my postdocs, including Pedro, I know that they have some skills that are better than mine,” Payne said. “He wanted to mentor graduate students in the lab, which he did, and he was amazing at it. He would provide scientific feedback while simultaneously making people feel comfortable and not judged.”
Exemplifying the ambitions of the Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, Monarrez also received a 2022 Stanford Postdoc JEDI Champion Award, a university-wide honor for those who have championed initiatives, activities, and efforts that advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion at Stanford and beyond. Monarrez is now the Recruitment, Outreach, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator and Instructor in the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Another postdoc from the 2021-23 cohort, Carlos Gould, who worked with Associate Professor Marshall Burke, is now an assistant professor in the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health & Human Longevity Science at the University of California, San Diego. The third member of the cohort, Claudia Avila, who worked with Professor Scott Fendorf, is now an assistant professor of environmental and ocean sciences at the University of San Diego. The fellows said their experience with the program served as stepping stones into their careers, launching them into what they’re doing now, Carrillo said.
Although the program is young, Carrillo already sees the needle moving in attracting a broader talent pool to the postdoc community – even when applicants didn’t get selected for the fellowship, their interest in the Doerr School has sometimes led to conversations with professors that have resulted in funding through other avenues, such as NSF, she said.
With the new cohort of fellows, Carrillo hopes to continue building the program and spreading the word about how school-supported fellowships can systematize the way we seek out and support postdoctoral positions.
“These scholars are going to bring new perspectives to the field of sustainability and I’m excited to see how they make their mark here with their research, but also with their mentorship and contributions at Stanford,” Carrillo said. “This program has huge potential.”
A second-year PhD student in Earth and planetary sciences and bestselling science fiction author, Ashing-Giwa never misses a chance to blend lab and lit.
A Stanford dune expert discusses watching desert-based movies from the perspective of a geoscientist, the realities of otherworldly dunes, and what his research can tell us about the ancient environment of Earth and other planets.
Difficulties in connecting charging sites to the grid pose the biggest delays in bringing publicly accessible EV charging stations online.