by Steve Nakata, WSU News
While many of their friends spent the summer performing typical student jobs like waiting tables or stocking the shelves in their hometown grocery store, three Washington State University seniors donned white lab coats and helped advance cutting edge research in reproductive biology.
The students are participants in WSU’s highly-acclaimed Team Mentoring Program (TMP). Through a combination of workshops, social events, and panel discussions and research opportunities, TMP provides underrepresented minority students majoring in STEM and health disciplines personalized support as a way to boost their retention and graduation rates.
Since the program was established in 2007, the Office of Multicultural Student Services (MSS) reports TMP has helped 925 undergraduates, utilizing 125 student mentors and 30 faculty mentors.
The program’s impact is well documented. MSS Director J. Manuel Acevedo said for the 2007 to 2014 cohort of active participants, 76-percent have or are on-track to graduate compared to 68-percent for those not active in the program. When looking at just engineering students, 69-percent of the active students have or are projected to graduate, as opposed to 55-percent who haven’t participated in TMP.
Last year, TMP was a finalist for the national University Economic Development Association’s Award of Excellence. In the same year, TMP faculty mentors received WSU’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award.
Discovering a passion for research
One late summer morning students Marleny Garcia, Jacob Lizarraga, and Karena De La Rosa scurried around the lab directed by WSU molecular biosciences professor Joy Winuthayanon. Each of them conducting separate experiments, but all trying to address one big issue--how problems related to female reproduction can be resolved.
De La Rosa hails from a big family, the fifth child among 12 brothers and sisters. Her father went to college in his 30’s and has been a strong advocate for higher education ever since. She always knew she wanted to go to college.
At WSU Karena wanted to try research, but didn’t know how until her TMP student mentor connected her with faculty mentor Phil Mixter, an associate professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences. Mixter is a key player in the TMP program helping to match interested students with faculty members in the sciences.
“Now that I’m working in Joy’s lab, I realize I really like it and I’m pretty good at it,” said De La Rosa, who now aspires to become a researcher for a pharmaceutical company.
Microbiology major Lazarraga described himself as going through the motions prior to becoming involved in TMP. He went to classes, studied, and hung out with friends. It wasn’t until he got involved in research that he truly understood the importance of what is being taught in the classroom.
“Before I didn’t see how my biology and chemistry classes applied to the real world,” he said. “Now I can see that connection and it has sparked a passion that has driven me to do well in school.”
Faculty important role models
One of most valuable components of TMP is the opportunity for students to be mentored by faculty members.
As TMP faculty mentors, Winuthayanon and Shaui Li, a postdoctoral fellow in Joy’s lab, teach the students about the world of research including what questions to ask, what equipment to use, and how to know if their experiments are successful.
“Joy has been such a good role model for me and is so good at what she does,” said Garcia. “When she explains things to me, she makes sure I understand it completely so that I’m actually learning.”
Winuthayanon admits that taking on undergraduate students in the lab is time-intensive especially at the beginning, but says the reward at the end is well worth waiting for.
“The students learn what it takes to work in a research lab and if conducting research is something they like to do,” she said. “I also benefit by gaining experience in training students and all the great work they contribute to the research we are doing in the lab.”
She appreciates her school’s support for junior faculty by encouraging them to mentor undergraduate students.
All three students say their faculty mentors have offered invaluable advice ranging from what they need to work on, how to get the most out of the curriculum, and the types of internships they need to be competitive on the job market.
“When you see how dedicated these students are, you quickly realize this isn’t about you,” Li said. “It’s about wanting to help them flourish.”
Networking makes all the difference
Coming from the small town of Mattawa, Wash. where 90-percent of the population speaks Spanish, Garcia could have been destined to work in the surrounding orchards and vineyards like so many others she grew up with. But this first-generation student aspires to be a doctor and came to WSU to enroll in the pre-medicine program.
“A big thing that can help you succeed in college is surrounding yourself with others who are successful,” Garcia said. “TMP is a great at connecting you with successful people.”
De la Rosa recalled how scary it was to live away from her family for the first time and credits TMP for providing her another family at WSU.
“It has given me the opportunity to meet amazing people who give you a push forward and a head start in everything,” she said.
Impacting people’s lives
Both the students and faculty mentors say there’s no substitution for gaining real lab experience in the STEM and health disciplines. It gives students more knowledge, more experience, and most of all, an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people.
“The research I’m doing makes me feel really good because I know many people can’t have children and we’re working towards solutions for them,” said De La Rosa. “I feel like we’re making really good progress.”
Lazarraga added, “It’s awesome to know that my research will be used to help people who are struggling to get pregnant. This is a lot bigger than me.”
TMP research scholarships are supported by Boeing, AT&T and the WSU Colleges of Engineering and Architecture, Arts and Sciences, Veterinary Medicine, and Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.