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$3.8 million in grants secured for programs to support underrepresented STEM students

Several Sacramento State faculty have received new grant funding to continue the University's work to broaden participation of underrepresented students in STEM and prepare them for graduate school. Pictured, from left: Nicole Campos, Kelly McDonald, Semarhy Quinones and Enid Gonzalez-Orta. (Sacramento State/Bibiana Ortiz)

Sacramento State researchers dedicated to increasing the number of students from historically underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have won federal grants totaling $3.8 million to continue their work for the next five years.

The National Institutes of Health awarded $1.3 million to faculty members Enid Gonzalez-Orta and Semarhy Quinones for the Undergraduate Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (U-RISE), a training program to prepare students for doctoral programs in biomedical research fields.

The National Science Foundation awarded Quinones and Kelly McDonald $2.5 million to fund the CSU Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (CSU-LSAMP), a systemwide program to broaden STEM participation of underrepresented students and prepare them for graduate studies.

Both awards will fund ongoing programs that serve students who traditionally have faced barriers in STEM studies, including Black, Latine, low-income and first-generation scholars, as well as students with disabilities. The programs offer students research mentoring and training, professional development, workshops and conference participation, among other benefits.

“It’s about equity and diversity in STEM,” said Gonzalez-Orta, a Biological Sciences professor. “We are missing a lot of ideas and perspectives that need to be represented in our work,” information that could lead to scientific breakthroughs, she said.

Jaylen Bush, seated.
Jaylen Bush, a fourth-year Biology student, said support programs like RISE and CSU-LSAMP have been critical to his academic success. He eventually hopes to become a research scientist at a national lab or university. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Educational systems historically excluded students of color and people with disabilities, the researchers noted. “We’re trying to change that,” Gonzalez-Orta said.

The federally funded programs aim to increase the number of people from underrepresented groups in STEM to better reflect their population in society, said Quinones, a Biology lecturer.

“If you don’t see Ph.D.s who look like you in those fields, you are less likely to pursue them,” said McDonald, a Biology professor. “You need to see it to be it.”

Research has demonstrated that programs such as RISE, a predecessor of U-RISE, and CSU-LSAMP help students from marginalized groups earn postgraduate degrees in STEM fields, Quinones said.

Since 2017, RISE at Sac State has trained 32 students, 23 of whom enrolled in graduate programs, she said.

U-RISE, being created with the new NIH funding, will provide research training to exceptional students from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics who want to earn doctorates in biomedical research fields.

Eight U-RISE students each year will conduct paid, independent research under the supervision of a Sac State or UC Davis faculty mentor. They will attend symposiums and workshops on topics such as research ethics and design and receive help applying for grants and graduate programs.

“We are preparing students to go into a doctoral program, giving them the skills and confidence to succeed,” Quinones said. “So, we are looking for students who can demonstrate to us that they really want to pursue a Ph.D.”

CSU-LSAMP, which serves all 23 of the system’s campuses, works to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups completing undergraduate degrees and entering graduate programs in STEM. Sac State oversees program activities across the CSU system, led by project manager Nicole Campos.

Jaylen Bush, a fourth-year Biology student who has participated in CSU-LSAMP and RISE at Sac State, said the programs gave him confidence in his research skills and in his ability to pursue his doctorate.

After falling behind in his studies during the height of the pandemic, “I felt I needed to catch up,” Bush said. Gonzalez-Orta recommended CSU-LSAMP, which helped put him back on track.

“I got the advising and mentorship I needed, actively conducted research, and got paid for my time,” Bush said.

He received a similar lift from RISE, where he learned scientific communication and networking skills as he participated in symposiums and conferences. “It helped me become a strong applicant for graduate programs,” he said.

Ultimately, Bush sees himself as a research scientist at a university or national laboratory, working on projects that could lead to cures for illnesses.

“I enjoy having a problem in front of me and working toward a solution, whether it be a medical issue or something else,” he said. “With LSAMP and RISE, I have had a community to support me.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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