Jun 19, 2020
Materials chemistry graduate student Omar Leon (Schwartz group) has been selected to receive a prestigious 2020-21 UCLA Graduate Council Diversity Fellowship.
 
The purpose of the Graduate Council Diversity Fellowship (GCDF) is to support UCLA graduate students who exemplify values of diversity in their academic, professional, and service activities. Omar's fellowship will be for the 2020-21 academic year.
 
In high school, Omar participated in interdisciplinary group projects and mentored students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, which led to his being awarded a full-tuition merit-based Posse Foundation Scholarship for college. Omar received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics from Kalamazoo College in 2018. After graduation, he came to UCLA for his Ph.D. studies, where he is conducting research in Professor Ben Schwartz’s group.
 
At UCLA, Omar has been involved in the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) programs for education and outreach to the community. In the program, he volunteered for Univision’s outreach event for underprivileged Spanish speaking communities, bringing nanoscience to the students and their families through models. “My hope is that, as a student of color from a low-socioeconomic background, my presence at these outreach events will encourage the younger generation of students to feel more confident about their own abilities,” he said. Omar has also volunteered at the UCLA Exploring Your Universe (pictured right) event on campus.
 
“As an immigrant Latino coming from a low-socioeconomic community and not speaking English, I was placed in classes that excluded in-depth science learning,” Omar said. “I had to work harder to even get an opportunity for a proper science education.”
 
While at Kalamazoo, Omar received the college’s First Year Award in Chemistry for his academic success, commitment to education and for giving back to his community. He mentored students of color from poor communities at both high school and middle school levels and helped the students with their projects during afterschool programs. 
 
As an undergraduate, Omar was accepted to the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Program at Syracuse University in New York. Through this summer research program, Omar realized that he wanted to become a professor. “I wanted to use my knowledge and position as leverage to help students of color from low-socioeconomic backgrounds attain research experiences,” Omar said. “At Kalamazoo College, I experienced first-hand the low retention rate of students of color and first-generation students in the sciences and the effects that mentorship can have on increasing retention. I saw students who wanted to pursue a science career but left due to a combination of the imposter syndrome and a feeling of not belonging in the scientific community. As someone who can relate to the feelings and fears of minority students, I was able to further encourage the students when I served as a teaching assistant (TA) for organic chemistry and physical chemistry classes.”
 
Thanks to his experience as a teaching assistant, Omar pursued other opportunities to help increase the retention and advancement of minority students. As a volunteer at Kalamazoo’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, Omar advised students on the effective ways to communicate with their professors and provided tips on how to succeed in academia. As a leader of the university’s Young Men of Color group, he learned more about leadership and the importance that representation has on younger students. 
 
Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.