Five questions with Melissa Burt, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion

Melissa Burt, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion
Melissa Burt, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion

Melissa Burt is the Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Engineering and a research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Science where she obtained her Ph.D. Her research focuses on the interactions of Arctic clouds, radiation, and sea ice, with interests ranging from cloud-radiation feedbacks, hydrological and energy cycles in climate, and climate change feedbacks. Engineering Source sat down with Melissa for a quick chat about her position.

Q: What is your role?

A: I see my role as someone who works with all of our faculty, staff, and students to promote and advance our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is important to me that we don’t just give lip service to DEI but that we fully integrate diversity, equity and inclusion into everything that we do including the ways that we interact and engage with each other. We’re working to build a sense of community so that everyone has a sense of belonging and they feel as though they belong. We are building relationships of trust with each other so we can have interactions that are more meaningful for us to do our best work, to be more productive as researchers, in our schoolwork if we’re students, and to really strategically think about ways to incorporate it in everything that we do. Ultimately, we are improving the culture of this college, in our departments, and divisions, so that we are one big community.

Q: How do we get there?

A: You go about doing that by having an understanding of who you are (being more self-aware) and also hearing and listening from others about their experiences. And ultimately, how do we take this knowledge and take concerted action – taking the steps and thinking about how we show up. Are we excluding people or not involving people in the conversation or the work we do? Every department may have a different culture – a way that everyone can be productive and thrive in that space. We do that by educating each other, by increasing awareness but also revisiting and reevaluating policies and procedures of what we do and why we do those things in those ways.

Q: What are some examples?

A: We’re providing professional development opportunities for graduate students, staff and faculty. We hosted an interactive workshop on strategies for preventing and responding to sexual harassment and improving workplace climate. We held a a workshop for first- and second-year women in engineering about mentoring and career pathways. In the fall, we piloted a workshop for faculty and staff. The original intent was increasing inclusivity in the classroom, but it became more broad to include strategies for ways to be more inclusive in our interactions. Now, we are hoping to continue this dialogue within departments: What are the changes they would like to see within their departments, and what are the types of activities that can bring people together to start that movement?

Q: What can we do at the department or unit level?

A: We’re asking all of our departments to bring together diversity and inclusion committees to take a look at what’s happening in their departments and how they can work to learn more about each other, to build community. I’m also hoping that we will focus on the strengths of the people in each of the departments. I’m excited that more people are open to having conversations around difficult topics and am exploring ways that we can do more of this. Because of this, I think people will become more aware of the things happening around them. A few weeks ago, I was chatting with someone who participated in one of my workshops. They told me that as they were pulling together a speech, they were thinking, “Does this messaging really speak to everyone who’s there?” Just to stop and think for five more seconds about something. The workshop really helped open their eyes.

Q: What are some action items?

A: We’ve asked each department to write diversity and inclusion strategic plans, and now we’re working with them to implement activities to make progress toward their one-year goals. It’s for them to have some accountability. It’s one thing to care about diversity and inclusion. By writing down these plans, we’re committing to making progress. We have a larger common goal for the type of community we want the college to be.