Gary Roloff: Increasing academic opportunities

Gary Roloff, professor in the Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, sees diversity, equity and inclusion as critical to developing effective leaders in STEM.

Headshot of Gary Roloff

Gary Roloff, professor in the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Fisheries and Wildlife,  believes in the importance of belonging. He lives his values by creating a welcoming, open environment within his Applied Forest and Wildlife Ecology Laboratory (AFWEL).

He is one of two faculty recipients of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s  inaugural You Belong Here Champion Award.

Roloff’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has resulted in a lab with researchers of various racial and ethnic, socioeconomic and academic backgrounds. Most recently, Roloff has been working on the Center for Cooperative Ecological Resilience with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. This center will partially focus on providing Native American students advanced degree training from MSU, whether it’s with the AFWEL or another program.

“Gary creates time and space for authentic and courageous lab meetings that safely discuss equity and inclusion and stress, anxiety, and depression,” wrote one of Roloff’s student nominators. “He creates open, supportive spaces by BEING openly supportive, by actually telling us that he cares about our futures, and that he is proud of us. This is the lifeblood of our lab.”

In light of recent events in the U.S. and at MSU, why do you believe diversity, equity and inclusion is important? 

It should reflect who we are as a country. To me, it needs to form the basis for how we move forward as a global citizen. We're a country founded on immigrants and hard work, but we have a history of inequitable treatment of people. Although we can never take back past injustices and mistreatment, we can adopt the concept of belonging as core to what we're doing, not just in the United States, but globally. This behavior comes easy for me, as I've always treated people the way I would want to be treated, regardless of their background, culture, race, sexual orientation, or other factors.

You shared how the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion affected you personally. What about professionally?

Professionally, I’ve used my interests in DEI and research lab to advance diversity in the wildlife profession. The wildlife profession was historically dominated by white men. More recently, numbers of women wildlife professionals are increasing, but the profession still lacks diversity from other underrepresented groups. I've tried to structure a program here at MSU to make that situation better, that is, to make fisheries and wildlife more diverse, more equitable, more inclusive.

How does your work help create change at MSU?

Every student that we can put out from our university becomes an ambassador, particularly those that have a positive experience and are successful. Recruiting underrepresented students to MSU partially depends on these ambassadors. For example, in my research lab, it is pretty easy to get Native American undergraduate students interested in our work; wildlife is a core component of Native American culture and beliefs. Thus, there appears to be a lot of interest and potential to recruit Native American students to MSU if the kids have role models of success. I think our university is well-positioned to advance DEI through the work of individual faculty and labs, but also through more structured efforts like the Native American Institute, Quentin Tyler's programs in CANR, and college and departmental DEI committees. These efforts focus on welcoming diverse people to this campus and truly listen to their needs. The evolution of these types of programs have started to make MSU a more welcoming place, in my opinion.

How do you hope to continue to support these initiatives and their growth within the college and the overall university? 

There’s an overall awareness in this country that we lack diversity in the STEM disciplines. I think there are multiple opportunities to fix that through granting agencies and hiring practices. I actually think there's a lot of support out there for programs that can truly show success. By that, I mean not about just tallying numbers, but it's about really creating enriching experiences for these students so that they become leaders, so that they're looked up to as mentors, role models and their voices are heard.

What did it mean for you to receive this award?

I really value the award and appreciate the fact that I was nominated because it's linked to such a core personal value that I have. DEI is something that extends beyond my work at MSU. It's a lifestyle for me. For my students to be able to pick up on that and recognize how important that is to me, that meant a lot. The fact that MSU has this type of recognition and truly values work in DEI makes me proud to be working here.

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit www.canr.msu.edu/inthefield. For more information, email Eileen Gianiodis, editor, at gianiod1@msu.edu or call 517-355-1855.

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