14 SF State students named CSU Pre-Doctoral Scholars

A group of students and staff members pose in front of SF State’s J. Paul Leonard Library.

Program supports students on the road to applying to Ph.D. programs

When graduate student Steven Sun first saw the email, he thought it couldn’t be right.

“I thought, ‘This is a mistake. I’m not gonna tell my advisor yet,’” he said. 

But it wasn’t a mistake. That email informed Sun that he was chosen as a Sally Casanova Scholar by the California State University, making him one of 14 San Francisco State University students to receive the award this year. The scholarship, also known as the Pre-Doctoral Scholarship, supports students who want to apply to doctoral degree programs by providing funding for professional development and application costs.

Sun’s interest in science was encouraged early on by his mother, a refugee and an ethnic Cambodian. Growing up, she found him a crystal-growing kit through a Christmas toy drive and let him raise caterpillars she came across while gardening. But the family struggled financially, and Sun dropped out of high school to support his mother and two sisters, later joining the U.S. Army. While deployed in Afghanistan, he spent his spare time reading articles about biology and, along with his platoon-mates, tinkering with hobby robots.

Even after earning his GED and a B.S. from San Francisco State — and spending years in chemistry and biology research labs — Sun says he’s struggled with feelings of inadequacy. “I didn’t think I would actually fit in to academia,” he said. “My uncles and aunts are janitors and maids. I’m the only family member I know that’s pursuing higher education.” That’s one reason why he’s committed to earning a doctorate degree. “I realized that I do want to pursue a Ph.D., because I could set a good example for students who might be in a similar situation — because science is open to anyone.”

This year the CSU awarded Sally Casanova scholarships to 74 students, all of whom receive one-on-one mentorship from a faculty member and are offered the chance to participate in summer research opportunities at institutions that offer Ph.D. programs. The award is aimed at students from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.

Sun plans to use the award to spend a summer studying how proteins evolve, possibly in a research lab at the University of California, San Francisco or UC Berkeley. The scholarship will also fund his visits to other universities that he’s interested in attending as a Ph.D. student — and beyond the financial support, the award comes with a sense of validation after years of commitment. “It’s not just like, ‘I’m into science’ or ‘I’m in this lab,’” Sun explained. “Now I can say, ‘Hey, I’m a Casanova Scholar.’”

Here’s a list of this year’s Pre-Doctoral Scholars at SF State:

  • Kiera Abdur-Rahman, Cinema Studies
  • Luis Ayala, Cell and Molecular Biology
  • Justin Brown, Geography
  • Estely Caranza, Chemistry
  • Angeline Chemel, Cell and Molecular Biology
  • Viviane Zurdo Costa, Physics
  • Romel Harmon, Education
  • Can (John) Ali Kilic, Developmental Psychology
  • Jill Laufer, Political Science
  • Matt Madruga, Philosophy
  • Wilmer Amaya Mejia, Biology
  • Steven Sun, Cell and Molecular Biology
  • Meme Than, Public Health
  • Caitlin Waddle, Mathematics