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New, transfer students flourish in STEM leadership program

By Katharine de Baun

OSU STEM Leaders Program

The OSU Stem Leaders Program is designed to increase the success of historically underrepresented undergraduate students in STEM fields at the university. Newly admitted freshman and transfer students apply for the selective two-year program well before they arrive at OSU.

Students participate in a year-long orientation course, cohort-based workshops, peer mentoring with upper division STEM students, and a paid, faculty-mentored undergraduate research experience culminating in a public symposium where students present their research to the community.

Currently in its third year of operation, the program is managed by Program Coordinator Sophie Pierszalowski. Although OSU STEM Leaders is a fairly new program, students are already reaping the benefits. Its value shines brightly and clearly, illuminating a path toward future success.

Gaining confidence by acting “as if”

Pre-med microbiology student Jackelin Diaz Scamaron came to OSU with impressive experiences under her belt, from tagging along as a small child with her doctor parents when they donated their time distributing free vaccines, birth control, and AIDS treatment in the Brazilian countryside, to observing live C-section and brain surgeries during a high school summer internship.

Jackelin Diaz Scamaron in front of white backdrop

Jackelin Diaz Scamaron

But even she lacked confidence as a freshman, especially when she had to network with professors to find a mentor for her STEM research project. In facing her fears, she found the freshman orientation workshops on how to present yourself professionally, which included top-down tips as well as peer feedback, extremely helpful.

“They teach you how to address Ph.D.’s and researchers, how to look them in the eye, shake their hand firmly, and tell them clearly why you’re there and what you need. Even if you feel intimidated or unworthy, you learn how to act ‘as if’ you are confident. And for me, it worked!”

Ido Almog, a freshman ESL student who moved to Portland from Israel at age seven, is finding the orientation workshops highly valuable in providing structure and focus. “They gave me a reality check on where I was and what I needed to do next,” building “solid habits” and providing strategies for how to study for tests. Perhaps most of all, the workshops helped him realize that, at college, he was “an adult now,” “in charge” of his path forward.

"There is a time to have fun, a time to work hard, and a time to present myself professionally," said Ido.

Thanks in part to her newly polished self-presentation skills, Jackelin ended up with a plum research job in Patrick Chappelle’s reproductive neuroendocrinology lab, where she cultures cells, transcribes and purifies RNA, quantifies DNA, and tests the genetic effects of different hormones.

As a pre-med student, Jackelin does not intend to pursue research as a career, but feels strongly that it will help her “be a better doctor, by giving me a step ahead in terms of being comfortable with research and the scientific method. I will have an eye out for the latest research so that I can provide the best therapies for my patients.”

Feeling part of a larger community

Another advantage of the STEM Leaders Program echoed by many students is how empowering it is to be part of a community of like-minded peers.

“The community with other STEM students has helped me to adjust to college as a minority. It has been very valuable to be with peers who are all interested in research, and to see how many different things they are involved in,” says Jackelin.

Maria Alcatraz working with samples in lab

Maria Alcatraz working in Jane Hall’s Lab

"I was surprised by how welcoming everyone was, from the professors to the administrators and the students. It’s a solid community and there are all of these social events,” says Ido, who enjoyed a little socializing at a recent STEM Leader disco/groove night at the African American Cultural Center.

“It’s a very inclusive community – I was intimidated coming to college but it was easy to get to know each other in the program. Plus a lot of us are in the same majors and so we formed study groups early on," adds Ido.

Maria Alcaraz, a first-generation Oregon student from a Spanish-speaking household, agrees about the value of a community of peers: “It is a family atmosphere, a comfort zone.”

The family atmosphere was an especial relief to Maria, who had had to navigate and overcome many obstacles on her own to arrive at OSU in the first place. While her parents were very supportive of higher education, they didn’t speak much English and were completely unfamiliar with the college application process. “I had to figure out the FAFSA and scholarship applications on my own and it was very hard,” she said.

A naturally hard-working student, Maria’s determination to go to college was stoked when, as a member of her high school Phi Beta Kappa honor society, she was offered an opportunity to intern in an orthodontics office during the summer. There, she fell in love with the profession and decided to become an orthodontist herself. After two years at Umpqua Community College, she transferred to OSU and applied and was accepted into the STEM Leaders Program as a biology major.

Smoothing out a hard transition

Despite her strong academic record, Maria found the transition to OSU very challenging.

“In community college, if the students don’t understand something, the teacher will stop and explain it until everyone understands. But here, the classes are much larger and more fast paced, and you have to figure out more things on your own.”

During this transitional period, Maria found the one-on-one guidance of her STEM Leader peer mentor extremely helpful. “I had a rough time. But my peer mentor, who had already taken some of the courses I was struggling with, really helped me to know what to prioritize in my studies, and also helped me find the right resources.”

Her peer mentor also provided invaluable emotional support when Maria had to deal with a family tragedy only one week after arriving on campus. Today they remain good friends, and Maria, now in her senior year, is enjoying giving back as she mentors a new student herself.

Taking the keys and running with them

Marissa Gallegos, a native Corvallian and chemistry major with plans to be an ER doctor, knew something was different when she was handed the keys to the Beckman Lab.

“They trusted me! I could go into the lab anytime my own and do my work. I had control – I was part of the team!” Marissa was impressed by how many researchers were there on the weekends, too. “It’s inspirational how dedicated and hard-working they are.”

Marissa Gallegos checking out samples in lab

Marissa Gallegos, Chemistry, working in the Beckman Lab.

Even though she had a good set of keys, Marissa was overwhelmed when she first started working in the lab.

“It was just like my advisor Professor Hurst told us, that it would feel like we were white-water rafting, falling off, and drowning under the current. But don’t worry, he reassured us, you will eventually pop up and breathe. It will get easier.”

So what helped Marissa to “pop up” instead of drifting away or drowning? “I am very curious. I ask questions!” said the energetic sophomore.

“When I first started working in the lab, there was all of this weird lingo. And even when I figured out what I was supposed to do, I didn’t know why I was doing it. So I think I exhausted everyone by asking question after question after question. And I am constantly taking notes! The researchers are very busy, so you have to be persistent, but they are all very nice and eventually got back to me with answers.”

In addition to asking a ton of questions, Marissa also sought out published research from the Beckman Lab to read, gradually understanding her role in the big picture. Her lab work, which involves using a spectrometer to test the various binding properties of ligands (metal-binding molecules) to copper and zinc, is contributing towards a possible drug therapy for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a life-changing outcome for those afflicted. Her lab colleagues who put in extra time on weekends aren't just workaholics. They are racing for a cure.

Transformative power of research

All of the students in the OSU STEM Leaders program praised the value of the research experience, which is the pinnacle of the program. All STEM Leaders spend three terms in a research lab under the guidance of a faculty mentor, culminating in a symposium where they present their research results to the public and practice their science communication skills.

The STEM program offers students financial support to work in the lab, alleviating financial pressure so that students don’t have to take work-study jobs and sacrifice valuable study and research time. Even after the paid research ends, however, most students continue working in the lab as volunteers.

Austin Aguilera, a first-generation student from southern Oregon who was raised in an extended Spanish-American family, is an environmental engineering major currently working in Dr. Harper’s Lab studying nanoparticle toxicology.

“Every single day I go in the lab — to learn new skills like how to use or maintain a machine, meet graduate students, or go to meetings — provides me with benefits that would otherwise be lacking in my education. Sitting in a classroom, I would not be learning how to work with a group and how to communicate well with other researchers.”

Paying it forward: Sharing invaluable lessons

Over the course of their experience in STEM Leaders, Jackelin, Maria and Marissa have all gained invaluable experience that, as an integral part of their second year in the program, they now share with their own STEM mentees. The value of these lessons learned become clear when asked what advice they would give new students.

“Never turn down an opportunity that you might regret!” advises Jackelin, who has learned not to let a lack of confidence stop her from stepping up.

“Definitely apply and be open to opportunities when you are here,” says Ido, who in addition to the STEM Leaders program participates in four student clubs and volunteers for American Red Cross blood donation drives.

“Don’t hold back and don’t be afraid to try something new!” says Maria, who has gained strength and poise by overcoming so many obstacles in her path, both on her own and with the help of others.

“Be shameless!” offers Marissa, who has learned that it pays off to be assertive and never hesitate to ask questions until you are satisfied with the answer.

So does the OSU Stem Leaders Program work? Based on the stories and lessons learned from these student interviews, it certainly seems like the answer is an emphatic Yes! Further funding to expand the program and reach more students would increase student success among underrepresented students in STEM fields.

The OSU STEM Leaders program is funded by the National Science Foundation and generous contributions from alumni and friends of the Colleges of Science, Agricultural Sciences, and Engineering as well as the OSU Research Office.