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UC Davis College of Biological Sciences

Header photo left to right: Liseli James, Angel Rogers, Ambria McDonald, Mayowa Adegboyega, Shaleeka Cornelius

"One of the points that stood out to me concerned soil salinization and ways to remediate the soil. I enjoyed that seminar so much that I decided to study soil science in graduate school. Before that point, I was going to medical school; I even took the MCAT. However, I felt a connection to that topic enough to apply to graduate school as well and ultimately chose the soil route."

Allie Igwe
2012 Summer Research particpiant

Programs Promote Undergraduate Research and Support Diversity

In two new interlinked College of Biological Sciences programs, undergraduate students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are being offered the unique opportunity to spend a summer conducting research in science labs across the UC Davis campus.

The benefits of the program are twofold: To offer undergraduate lab work and mentorship opportunities to students from colleges without large research programs, and to support diversity in the sciences throughout the University of California.

"The opportunity to provide real-world undergraduate benchwork experience and research-career mentorship to students whose colleges don't offer such opportunities is a true gift," Dean James E. K. Hildreth said. "We benefit from their energy and enthusiasm, and hope to give them the inspiration and experience to pursue graduate school in the life sciences."

Students at Bodega Marine Lab
L to R: Ambria McDonald and Mayowa Adegboyega hold a purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) and bat star (Patiria miniata).

Since 2012, the Evolution and Ecology Graduate Admission Pathways (EEGAP) program has been a partnership that provides Howard University undergraduates with summer research at UC Davis and joint mentoring by faculty from both schools. Led by Professor of Evolution and Ecology Rick Grosberg and Academic Coordinator Carole Hom, its primary goal is to help the visiting students prepare for admission to graduate programs in ecology and evolutionary biology.

"The EEGAP program allows students from HBCUs to expand their intellectual horizons and consider fields of study that they may not have otherwise envisioned," Hom said. "Because it's such an intensive experience, they have the opportunity to read and think deeply about a problem, and talk about it with faculty, grad students and postdocs as both mentors and colleagues."

Grosberg adds that such mentoring is what makes this program unique.

"Close, long-term, collaborative mentoring is one of the hallmarks of the program that distinguishes it from virtually all other programs that aim to diversify the pool of successful applicants to doctoral programs in the U.S.," he said.

Associate Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Daniel Starr will launch a similar program in summer 2014 with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), a Historically Black State University in rural Eastern Maryland. Professor Mitch Singer is the co-principal investigator and is leading the program this year while Starr is away on sabbatical.

"One of the reasons we picked Maryland Eastern Shore is because it's a rural-agricultural campus like Davis, and we figured that if a student was wanting to go to a rural area like that as an undergraduate they might be more interested in the small college town feel of Davis," Starr said.

Dean James E. K. Hildreth and graduate student Damion Whitfield recently visited UMES as representatives for the program, to increase interest among prospective students.

Both the EVE and MCB programs offer the students an all-expenses-paid research experience that they would not be able to get at their home colleges. Funding is provided by the University of California Office of the President through its UC-HBCU Initiative in conjunction with the College of Biological Sciences and other UC Davis colleges.

According to Hom, this experience opens many of the students' eyes into careers in the life sciences. It also offers UC Davis faculty insight into some of the challenges that first-generation college students face as they pursue advanced study.

"As an added benefit, faculty get a close look at a pool of talent that they might not otherwise tap," she said.

Starr emphasized that he received terrific support from all his colleagues in obtaining the UCOP grant and launching the program in Molecular and Cellular Biology.

"I just really want to acknowledge that this was a huge team effort, involving the group of 16 faculty here including the dean, and the chairs of both the biochemistry, molecular, cell and developmental biology graduate group and the integrative genetics and genomics graduate group," Starr said.

In Evolution and Ecology, Howard University student Mayowa Adegboyega worked with Dr. Peter Wainwright in his fish lab. Adegboyega says that her summer at Davis has drastically changed her future goals.

"Before this, I wanted to go to medical school but now I have completely changed my plans to go to graduate school," Adegboyega said. "I still want to go to medical school eventually but I am really interested in research right now and I want to focus on that."

Such testaments are just what Grosberg had hoped to hear.

"I've always believed one of the biggest obstacles for diversifying the research community, especially in environmental biology, is that almost every colleague I know chose to become a researcher by being mentored through the process—one-on-one with faculty, grad students and post-docs—that got us not only engaged but also gave us an understanding of what it would be like to do that type of work," Grosberg said.

With that in mind, Grosberg was very interested in starting the program with Professor Mary McKenna's students at Howard University.

"We saw this as a huge chance, as did Mary, to get her undergraduates in a much bigger research institution, with more levels of opportunity," he said.

Howard student Angel Rogers, who also plans to pursue a Ph.D., worked in Grosberg's lab this summer and is proof of what such mentoring can provide. Rogers enjoyed the research, but wasn't expecting the complicated process of what lies ahead—graduate school applications.

"I did not realize how in-depth the processes of applying to, and actually matriculating through graduate school are," Rogers said. "The rigor of the program helped me to realize that I truly have to be sure about and committed to professional school before I enter, or I run the risk of setting myself back."

Luckily Rogers and the others found ample help here at Davis.

"The program coordinators, mentors, dean of the college, post-docs, lab managers, fellow interns and more all work together to make sure you are more than prepared for graduate school," Rogers said. "They helped me develop my laboratory skills as a scientist, my analytical and comprehension skills as a scholar, and my confidence in my unrestricted future."

Allie Igwe, who attended the summer program in 2012, also attested to the mentoring's effectiveness. Igwe worked in the lab of Evolution and Ecology Professor Sharon Strauss, where Ania Truszczynski was her mentor. "Ania took me to a Monte Carlo Seminar that discussed the top 100 questions in agriculture. One of the points that stood out to me concerned soil salinization and ways to remediate the soil," Igwe said. "I enjoyed that seminar so much that I decided to study soil science in graduate school. Before that point, I was going to medical school; I even took the MCAT. However, I felt a connection to that topic enough to apply to graduate school as well and ultimately chose the soil route."

The students from Howard University also had a few non-scientific experiences they'll never forget. For example, Adegboyega couldn't ride a bike when she arrived for the summer.

"The day I got to Davis, Carole announced we would be going on a bike tour, and let's just say hilarity ensued," Adegboyega said. "I would try to avoid those poles in the middle of the bike lanes that prevent cars from going through, but I would hit it every time. I hit every single pole in my path that afternoon, much to the amusement of everyone else. They described it as a 'ping' sound they would hear behind them which alerted them that I had once again collided."

Rogers added that trips to field sites were truly enjoyable – and often quite memorable.

She described traveling to Lake Tahoe with professor emeritus of geology Dr. Eldridge Moores, where he gave students the history of California both from a geographical and a humanitarian prospective.

"It was an amazing and adventurous trip; however, things got rather interesting when Dr. Moores accidentally dropped the van keys into a sewer. We had a good laugh about it and made use of the time exploring the UCD Tahoe Research Center," Rogers said.

Adegboyega urges other students to try the program: "Do it! It is such a once-in-a-lifetime amazing experience. As an international student, I don't get to apply to many programs that would take me, but this one did and because of the size of the program they were able to really focus on each student and provide us with all the assistance we would need."

Funding from the University of California Office of the President comes from its UC-HBCU initiative, which states that the University of California's reputation as a premier research and teaching institution rests on its capacity to serve the State of California, and nation, at the highest levels. This requires attracting and graduating scholars who reflect the communities of the world. At the graduate level African Americans are extremely under-represented in UC graduate and professional programs. The five year average (2007-2011) for enrollment of African Americans in UC academic doctoral programs is 2.5 percent.

The UC-HBCU Initiative seeks to improve the representation of this population in UC graduate programs, particularly Ph.D. programs, by investing in relationships and efforts between UC faculty and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).