As a first-generation college student, Alicia Foxx had no one at home to field her academic questions, with her father only completing high school and her mother's death when she was young.
Although she didn't always like to ask for help, Foxx learned to turn to teachers at Proviso East High School to help her navigate through school.
Foxx stuck with general educational classes until she met Glenn Lid, a chemistry teacher, who sparked her love of science.
"He was a really good teacher and he was very personable and very nice…I learned so much from him, even outside of the class and so I really like science because of him," Foxx said.
Through a connection of Lid's at Lewis University in Romeoville, Foxx took lab classes there before graduating. This opportunity gave her exposure to college before she started.
Lid is now an adjunct chemistry teacher at nearby Elmhurst College. While Foxx was still in high school, he offered a tour of the college to her and another student.
After the tour, Foxx knew Elmhurst was the school for her. Although she had taken a college-level class previously, Foxx still struggled at first with the transition. Her undergraduate adviser Paul Arriola, who is now Elmhurst's Associate Dean of Faculty and a biology professor, guided her through the pitfalls of managing the change from high school to college and also offered a perspective on being a racial minority in higher education.
Foxx is a black woman and her former adviser is Mexican-American.
"He knew that there were some things that I had to do that would allow me to be able to compete with other folks who might have more advantages than I did," Foxx said.
Her adviser's support must have helped.
Foxx was invited to speak at her alma mater in February 2018 at the first American Dream Fellowship awards ceremony. All of the winners are first-generation college students and each received an $1,000 grant.
She talked about the challenges of being the first in her family to attend college and the importance of asking for help throughout the process.
Foxx is now using the experimental approach of trial and error she fine-tuned in high school and college to combat racial discrimination and sexism in science while she earns her doctorate in plant biology and conservation at Northwestern University.
The venue Foxx is examining these issues stems from perhaps an unlikely source – codes of conduct at scientific conferences.
Codes of conduct aim to create a safe and welcoming environment at conferences. They demand that attendees follow a set of rules and respect everyone in regard to their different identities, whether that be their race or sexual orientation.
"Are these codes of conduct covering aspects of identity-based discrimination and sexual misconduct…we're exploring that with aspects of not just representation but also inclusion of folks who are not the common people that you find…so how is science making room for the talent that doesn't look like the white males?" Foxx said.
This topic started circulating in her head when Foxx began to think about past scientific conferences she had attended. She talked about the issue casually with a few master's and Ph.D. students at Northwestern and the conversation snowballed into a plan of action.
Since April of last year, the group has been studying these disparities in their free time. They are planning to publish their findings. A scientific journal has already reviewed their findings and it will go through more rounds of edits before it is considered for publication.
Although Foxx and her group are working on this project independently without institutional support, they have attracted the support of various professors and scientists. A scientific journalist at Medill, Northwestern's journalism school, is editing their findings.
Foxx highlighted an example of racial discrimination at a scientific conference.
"There was a black man who was giving a presentation. When he was done, someone asked him a question and she let him know that the reason why he had his university job was because he was black," Foxx said.
Sometimes the problem isn't with the wording of codes of conduct but the lack of them in the first place.
The group looked at about 200 biology conferences across the United States and Canada and found that around 45 had established codes of conduct.
Racial discrimination isn't the only problem that crops up at conferences.
Incidents of sexual harassment also occur in an environment, Foxx said, that is "mostly professional" but also serves alcohol and leaves room for informal interactions.
"We have explicit examples where people have advisers who have been scientists in the field are telling their young, for example, female science students at conferences not to talk to x, y, and z because they know this person is a known offender," Foxx said.
There aren't any plans for the 2008 Proviso East graduate to leave these issues alone if her study is published and Foxx said her group is already talking about what they can do next to shed light on these disparities.