Tahmina Ahmed is a 6th year Ph.D. student researching mosquito reproductive endocrinology in Dr. Jinsong Zhu’s lab, where she studies Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and the regulatory networks of the signaling pathways of the Juvenile hormone (JH) and 20-hydroxyecdysone (20E). The Female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are the vector for globally important diseases like dengue, yellow fever, Chikungunya, and Zika fever. Her goal is to better understand the mechanistic regulatory insights of JH and its role in mosquito reproduction. Her research will help to explore new molecular targets that have the potential to develop new insecticides to decrease this mosquito population, which in turn will assist in the fight against these diseases, without causing additional harm to the environment or other species.

In addition to her research role, Tahmina is also the inaugural Student Advocate on the Departmental Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Committee. Under Chair Dr. Chloé Lahondère, the committee launched in October 2018. The DEI Committee has several initiatives and projects. Some of them include: reviewing curriculum or documents for unconscious biases and language to refute and correct; promoting the recruitment of diverse students, faculty, and staff; creating events for Under-represented students; and extending the facilities to Under-invited students to make them feel more comfortable.

Tahmina doing a lab experiment

“Having a student representative in the DEI committee was essential to us and Tahmina has been filling that role wonderfully since she joined.” Dr. Lahondère says. “She’s the link between the student community and our committee. While students are always welcome to contact members of our committee directly, it can be intimidating, or students might want to remain anonymous. Tahmina is their voice.”

Many of the DEI committee’s initiatives have already been successfully implemented. The committee has designed and conducted a climate survey to better assess the needs of students from diverse backgrounds. They’ve worked to make social events more inclusive by including food that is considerate of dietary restrictions and have promoted it as a best practice within the department.

More recently, the committee wrote a letter to the department to address the murder of George Floyd and to denounce hate, disregard, and injustice against Black Americans. Then, they sent out an Open Forum Survey to the members of the Department to hear their thoughts. During the Fall 2020 semester, the committee collaborated with Theater Delta to host and sponsor a virtual, interactive theater performance to address conflict and unconscious biases in the mentor-mentee relationship.

Tahmina’s involvement in the committee began in January 2020. She believed that getting involved would be a great way to promote changes for the betterment of the departmental environment and make an impact on students from diverse backgrounds. Her past counseling experience and her drive to learn made her perfect for the role.

This past summer, Tahmina participated in the CALS Teaching Transitioning Workshop, where she learned about teacher-student dynamics and how to make these dynamics more engaging. Her personal background and dedication to diversity and inclusion also played a part. “I completed my bachelor’s and master’s in my home country, Bangladesh and came to the Department of Biochemistry at Virginia Tech to pursue a Ph.D. As an international student, I know what some of these students are feeling and experiencing and I want to be a voice for them.”

Tahmina headshot

Tahmina would describe her Student Advocate position as the interface between students and faculty. If any student feels uncomfortable or feels like they’re being discriminated against or not treated fairly, they can talk with Tahmina. Additionally, she provides resources for students and brings forward issues for further discussion in the committee. If any student feels like they need more facilities or resources or they’re looking for something to be changed in the department, she’ll bring the issue to the committee, make a case for the addition of a resource or facility, and then, the resource is further discussed for implementation.

“As a Student Advocate, I’m here to make sure that there’s a good interaction between students, faculty and staff, and the department and administration, as well as maintain a supportive environment for these students,” Tahmina says.

Tahmina believes that the work of the committee is meaningful because it creates a place of comfort for Under-represented students, encourages dialogue between students, faculty, and higher authority figures, and establishes a sense of accountability. “I believe that changes start at home. When there is awareness within the department, these people go out into the campus community or wider society and make a big impact,” she explains.

Tahmina plans to finish her Ph.D. program this semester (Fall 2020). As she reflects on her role, she says “Diversity is the beauty and you can glorify this beauty by nurturing and supporting it. I learned a lot and have educated myself. I’ll carry these communication skills that I’ve learned in this role and take it with me wherever I go. I’m always thinking about diversity, inclusion, and equity and I want to continue to be a voice for that. In the future, if I’m a part of another institution and I find out that there’s not a platform for diversity and inclusion, I’d like to create that platform.”

If you’re interested in getting involved with the Departmental Diversity and Inclusion Committee or becoming a Student Advocate, please reach out to Dr. Chloé Lahondère (lahonder@vt.edu) or Dr. Glenda Gillaspy (gillaspy@vt.edu).