Chemistry Graduate Student Outreach Highlight, Karl Ocius

Compiled and edited for clarity by Hannah Musgrove

Karl Ocius
DEI Committee Member (Chair)
Chemical Microbiology
Pires Lab, 4th Year

Since joining the graduate program at UVA, Karl has volunteered with LEAD and  has served as an officer to the GSAS student council. He also holds a current DEI Committee role and recently attended the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) conference where he was awarded the Pfizer Graduate Poster Award in the Analytical division. ChemSciComm reached out to Karl to learn more about his experiences and perspective, especially regarding his recent work with the DEI Committee. The DEI Committee exists to empower students with different perspectives by acting as a bridge between students and faculty. They work to ensure that diverse student voices are heard by the faculty, both by approaching challenges and building on positives brought to the committee. They are also able to help offer support for related events and are willing to collaborate as much as needed on ideas for community projects.

How did you come to UVA Chemistry and what are you currently working in the Chemistry department?

“I went to undergrad and got my masters at Liberty just down the road. Lynchburg and Charlottesville are like cousin cities, and I had been to C’ville before. So, applying to grad school during the  pandemic, I didn’t want to move too far. Moving can have some uncertainty, so I wanted to make an adjustment that was familiar, and UVA was an easy choice.

As for my work, infectious diseases are very common in  my country [of origin]. In Haiti, people can die from trivial bacterial infections. I found out from a friend about Marcos Pires’ research and how he is studying bacteria, both commensal and pathogenic. I was specifically interested in the way the good bacteria  impact life. This is something I am excited to be learning about and work on.” 

What inspired you to participate in the DEI committee?

“Originally, when I got involved in the DEI committee, I was asked by the DEI liaison at the time if I can help address some of the challenges we have in our community - can I help meet the needs and grow on positives in the department. I decided to help then because I believed that I can positively contribute to the betterment of our community. So, this year with the committee I began focusing on continuation of work we started last year. This work involves carrying through the trainings we thought the department would benefit the most from based on feedbacks we have gotten [touching on DEI and microaggressions].  I’m looking forward to seeing how they make a difference in the department as a whole. It makes me happy to see the department grow, and hopefully it will be continued to be built upon, and we can continue to be as inclusive as possible.

Working on outreach has also been a good way to separate productively, by taking a break from research and gaining new perspectives.”

Are there any outcomes from your involvement so far that have surprised you?

“I was really surprised by the responses from the poem activity that was given at the chemistry department retreat. I didn’t realize what a personal impact sitting down and writing about where you’re from would be, and how many people it would impact.

Overall, I was also surprised about the department of chemistry’s effort, especially since other schools don’t necessarily take the time to focus on DEI. Our department is choosing to address some of the DEI related challenges to ensure the inclusivity of our community there may be a few kinks [to work out], but it is going in the right direction.”

What challenges have you faced while participating in the DEI committee?

“In planning the upcoming Intro to DEI session, we started to think about the boundaries of DEI and how to get everyone in our community on the same page on the matter, so we knew we wanted to have [this introductory session] with an expert in the field leading it. This will ensure that all our community members that attend the session can be on the same page. However, we were having difficulties scheduling the event. So, to ensure that we also make progress as a committee, we got help from faculty members, Prof. Pompano and Prof. Pires, and they guided us in how to approach setting up this event. Reaching out to faculty has been helpful.

Another challenge we’ve faced is getting students to propose DEI related event and see it through – to be active contributors in what we are trying to accomplish. We know it will come with proper trainings and discussions and will [be less of a challenge] as we get comfortable talking with each other [about the needs of the community]. This is why I’m really happy with the journal club, because it gives people places to discuss different topics, before having an idea to bring up, or leading to ideas that can be brought to the DEI committee.

In this role, I am still learning. Coming from a country where I was in the majority to one where I am a minority, I have a different perspective for what is needed. We still need a lot of help from students, as we need feedback and creative ideas. The community must actively participate to effectively address the issues and to build on the positive.”

Has there been a particularly memorable or rewarding aspect of your experience in this role?

“Personally, going to NOBCCChe was very rewarding. I was able to interact with people from different backgrounds and experiences and see people who went from grad school to different career paths some of which I did not know existed.

As a committee, embracing diversity issues in STEM, I am really grateful for the faculty members  and DGS to make time to meet with us and try to help us plan and mentor us, and resolving some of the challenges that, sometimes, I don’t know that we would be able to resolve as students on our own. I think a lot of the effort they are putting into DEI will work, maybe not immediately but it will in the future. The commitment to diversifying and empowering the community will only strengthen the department, and I’m very grateful for the faculty who are involved.”

What advice would you give to students wanting to get more involved in similar outreach, or for allies wanting to be involved in promoting a sense of inclusion in the chemistry community?

“Students just need to be brave when it comes to DEI. DEI is hard and proposing events can be challenging, but you have to be brave and if not for yourself, but for your colleague. Being understanding to both positive and constructive criticism is also important, as they help you build on your event.

Regarding allies -  When you have a marginalized group, in STEM for example, those groups have to overcome all these extra barriers to get to their goal. An ally is someone from another group (non-marginalized), who didn’t have to deal with the same barriers, contribute to helping their marginalized colleagues whether through hosting events addressing those barriers, or maybe help remove those barriers altogether . Some of those barriers are systemic, so some aspects may require a lot more work. But if someone can help [their colleague] work through those barriers, it makes the field better for everyone. So being an ally means you are helping and you understand that your friend has more barriers to overcome to reach their goal. To do this, again, you must be very brave, because you are trying to address barriers you’ve never faced, because you want your colleague to be able to focus on their goals and not these barriers. You have to sit down and have raw conversations with your colleague to have understanding first - and when you fail, you experiment, you have to try again and learn. Motivationally, it is not something you do for a prize, but because you want to help your friend and colleague.”

In a related sense, a question that can come up about affinity conferences, like NOBCChE and SACNAS, is whether people need to be members of a particular group to attend. Can you share your perspective?

“No, attendees do not have to be a member of a particular group to join. One of the things I was excited about [when I went to NOBCChE] was when I saw people from all over. There were people from other groups, not a lot, so that would just mean you would have to be brave. Diversity as a whole is that we are all different. If you want to help others, attending different [affinity events] is a good place to learn a lot. You also get to network and learn from people in that group, or who work with people in that group, and are in STEM. You must be brave, because you will be a minority - it’s a big adjustment, but it can be a fun and exciting adjustment as you learn from others. For me, it’s okay to be the only Haitian in a group, its fine because you have your own perspective, and you can share it, and you can learn from other perspectives which to me is fun.”


Sharing our unique journeys through STEM can take a lot of bravery, but it can enable us to connect and grow as a community. We are grateful to Karl for sharing part of his graduate school story with us!

If you are interested in learning more about the DEI Committee or would like to learn more about how you can be involved, feel free to reach out to the student DEI committee or to Dr. Michelle Personick and Dr. Marcos Pires, the faculty advocates for the committee.