Graduate Student in the laboratory of Joseph Piccirilli
When I was choosing between graduate schools I was looking at five very competitive structural biology programs. Most were on the east coast because I had planned to stay near my friends and family. At the time I had been working at UChicago as a PREP student. UChicago's culture seemed to jive really well with my "I'll just build it" approach to problem solving. Being outspoken and passionate was much more tolerated here than it was in my undergraduate institution. Later on, I realized this was because UChicago's culture values individualism and its funding structures give students the freedom to make their ideas into tangible projects. If you can clearly communicate your ideas, you can find someone who is willing to invest in them, and that suited me just fine.
On top of the freedom, UChicago actually valued teaching as a profession and a skill. In my undergraduate experience, poor teaching was a major contributor to URM attrition in the sciences. Attending classes at UChicago as a PREP student allowed me to see just how seriously professors took the responsibility of teaching here, and it gave me hope. Also the Center for Teaching and Learning, a UChicago facility (and program) that provides pedagogical training for faculty and TA's, seemed like a valuable resource for my development as an educator well.
What finally made up my mind however, was how the faculty at UChicago talked to me during the one on one interviews. At most schools, if I brought up the lack of diversity in the sciences, professors either got visibly uncomfortable and panicked or showed their hand by saying something rude or dismissive. UChicago was the only school where faculty were comfortable and enthusiastic when talking about diversifying the sciences. I suppose the differences that made UChicago stand out to me all came down to how much they respected their students. Students were worthy of respect enough to fund their projects. They were worthy of respect enough to teach them with skill and intention. Even recruits were worthy of respect enough to listen to what they had to say about how women and people of color are treated in science. UChicago made me feel like it would treat me like a whole person, not just a lab rat so that's why I chose to stay. Now it would be remiss to suggest that my experience here has been easy. This is a tough school and a demanding program but finding my way through it made me find my center and helped me come into my own. I think the barriers that I’ve faced here exist everywhere in academia. UChicago isn’t a special exception to the systemic problems that academia is dealing with, but they are willing to deal with them, which to me is enough.