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STEM Boosters: Biology Mentors Spur Student Success, Against the Odds

Posted on February 5, 2016
Dr. John Matsui, BSP director and biology professor at UC Berkeley (left), and Dr. Murty Kambhampati, biology progessor and chair of the natural resources department at SUNO.

Dr. John Matsui and Dr. Murty Kambhampati are on a mission. Both are biology mentors working hard to help more minority and women students, who are traditionally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, realize academic success, despite challenges they may face. Matsui, director and founder of the Biology Scholars Program (BSP) at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), directs a program that first casts a wide net on eligibility, then offers a structured experience designed to help participants succeed. Kambhampati heads a program that encourages early undergraduate lab experiences at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO). 

As part of his work with BSP, Matsui has spent the past two decades successfully mentoring more than 3,000 UC Berkeley biology majors. Now, he is seeking to replicate the program’s formula for success, which earned him a 2013 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM). As a start, last October Matsui brought together 100 faculty, graduate students, post-doctoral scholars, staff and administrators from UC Berkeley as well as from other University of California campuses for a conference to explore whether some of BSP’s successful practices can be adopted institution-wide.

“My strategy for institutional change is a strengths-based approach,” says Matsui. “I want to build on the strengths they bring to the table, to help them improve the way we support the success of all students in STEM, most especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, and then come up with metrics for how we evaluate that success to see how well we’re doing.”

Structured program key at UC Berkeley

Belief in underrepresented students’ STEM abilities, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds or academic test scores, underlies the screening process for BSP. The program considers students based upon eligibility factors gathered through a written application and personal interview.

“My staff and I don’t buy into the ‘deficit model.’ Rather we focus on how we can more effectively advise, mentor, and tutor our students – starting where each individual is and building on the strengths they bring,” Matsui says.

Students who demonstrate such strengths are teamed with BSP Peer Advisors and Academic Study Group Leaders. These “coaches” are older biology majors who mentor younger students about learning science, university life, and their futures. In addition, student committees of both peer advisors and mentees organize undergraduate research symposia, plan barbeques, host the BSP graduation, and develop the rules that govern the use of the BSP Student Center. Matsui’s goal is to help BSP participants grow as
problem-solvers, innovators and leaders.

“The concept of ‘shared responsibility’ is introduced early in the BSP mentor-mentee relationship,” says Matsui, “enabling students to take ownership of their success, while they also receive support and reinforcement as they work to achieve their career goals.”

Matsui estimates that 50 percent of BSP’s mentees are from under-resourced high schools and 70 percent are the first in their family to attend college. As a result, he says success often means taking courses, doing research and graduating on a “different clock” than their classmates.

“We help our students understand the gap between their academic preparation and the University’s expectation. Then our peer mentors work with the students to develop an individualized plan to close that gap and to get each BSP member to where they want to be academically.”

Financial support, early lab work critical at SUNO

Kambhampati, chair of the Department of Natural Sciences and a biology professor at SUNO, among the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), shares Matsui’s passion to increase the retention rates of minority students pursing biology degrees.

A mentor for hundreds of biology students for more than 20 years, Kambhampati knows their financial needs can be a barrier to success. His experience is confirmed by research. The 2015 Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) College Seniors Survey found that 27 percent of students missed class because of employment, and 31 percent assisted their families financially.

Understanding the financial and academic responsibilities many of his students must juggle, Kambhampati, recently donated his 2012 PAESMEM monetary award of $10,000 to establish a scholarship fund for STEM majors at SUNO. He says it’s a first step in his ultimate goal of endowing the fund.

“We cannot solve or assist every student's challenges and needs. But, if we can provide a helping hand to alleviate a few students from their financial burdens to advance their academic work in STEM fields, that is a very rewarding and a joyful experience to me,” Kambhampati says. 

Biology mentees from SUNO received NSF- and DoE-supported internships from Brookhaven National Laboratory. Pictured (from left to right) are  Tyra Bunch, Nyesha Smith, Jeffery Ambrose and  Carmen Maldonado.Biology mentees from SUNO received NSF and DoE-supported internships from Brookhaven National Laboratory. Pictured (from left to right) are Tyra Bunch, Nyesha Smith, Jeffery Ambrose and Carmen Maldonado

Hands-on lab experience is certainly a differentiator for academic STEM success as well. Also serving as Chair of the Natural Sciences Department at SUNO, Kambhampati calls it a critical element for keeping his students engaged. “Our mentoring methods are structured to allow our students to be exposed to research and the professional environment as early as possible. We have seen the results of this approach. For our students from disadvantaged backgrounds, being able to travel to state-of-the art research facilities and conduct research gives them a sense of belonging and confidence,” says Kambhampati. During the students’ academic careers, STEM mentors also assist with making recommendations for science research projects or resolving academic challenges that may arise throughout the year.

Kambhampati says SUNO’s Performance-Based System (PBS), which qualifies students for a range of STEM support programs at the university, plays a key role in improved graduation rates, grade point averages, and graduate and professional school admissions to pursue advanced STEM degrees. Nearly all STEM undergraduates who went through SUNO’s STEM programs have completed degrees in four or four-and-a-half years—nearly two years earlier than students who took an average of six years to graduate in the Natural Sciences Department.

Kambhampati and Matsui agree that the foundation of a successful mentoring program is open and honest feedback between mentors and mentees, a practice both programs at SUNO and UC Berkeley incorporate.

“We need to listen to them first and get their feelings about what their capabilities are, what their limitations and barriers are—all of these things can have an impact on their goals,” says Kambhampati. “Those are the interactions that also helped me become part of their life stories.” Matsui agrees. “Their [mentees’] feedback helps with identifying gaps in the efficacy of the program that we might have missed otherwise,” says Matsui.

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