Summer program inspires students to stick with science

A man in a white lab coat and goggles prods a petri dish next to a small flame in a research laboratory.

College of San Mateo student Jordan Chavez plates bacteria in the lab of Associate Professor of Biology Joseph Chen.

SF State’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program gets future scientists into the lab

Every scientist got their start in research somewhere — cleaning lab dishes, perhaps, or typing data into a computer. Jordan Chavez got his racing bacteria.

Chavez, a student at College of San Mateo, is one of 12 students in this summer’s 10-week long Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at San Francisco State University. Through the National Science Foundation-funded program, students work independently on research, exploring some aspect of the diversity of life while being mentored by a San Francisco State professor. It’s the first chance for most of the students, who apply from colleges around the U.S., to see how science in a lab differs from science in a classroom.

“It’s not just experiments,” Chavez explained. “A lot of science is communication and collaboration with other people.”

Chavez, working in the lab of Associate Professor of Biology Joseph Chen, compared different strains of bacteria that help legume plants, such as peanuts and lentils, draw in nutrients through their roots. This line of research could eventually lead to ways to alleviate fertilizer overuse in agriculture. Chavez and the rest of this year’s cohort presented their research, on topics ranging from fly development to starfish foraging, during a symposium in Hensill Hall on Aug. 4.

“Like many REU programs, we aim to diversify the STEM workforce, giving students who might not otherwise easily find research opportunities a chance to engage at our campus,” said Professor of Biology Sarah Cohen, a co-principal investigator for the program.

But do programs like these accomplish their goal of getting students to stick with science? New research by Interim Dean of the College of Science & Engineering Carmen Domingo suggests they do. Domingo and a team of other scientists conducted a study comparing students who participated in REU programs with students who applied but weren’t accepted. The study spanned five programs around the U.S., including SF State’s.

Students in REU programs were almost 50 percent more likely to pursue Ph.D.s in the six years after their summer of research, the team found. And those students also wrote more scientific papers and delivered more scientific presentations. The researchers published their results in the July issue of the journal BioScience.

Since 2009 more than half of SF State’s REU alums have gone on to pursue advanced degrees. More than half of all of the trainees during that time were underrepresented minorities, and over three-quarters had no previous research experience. 

For Chavez, the experience helped him gain confidence in his ability to do research. Before this summer, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to pursue a Ph.D. But now? “Now I’m thinking, ‘Yeah. I can do that,’” he said.

Chabot College student Lily Wong, who worked in Professor of Chemistry Tomoko Komada’s lab at SF State’s Estuary and Ocean Science (EOS) Center, also got her first taste of research this summer. After learning to manage a chronic health condition through a change in diet, Wong dedicated herself to learning science so she can explain the importance of nutrition to others. “I want to help people understand science and find it more interesting,” she said. For her project, she used chemical techniques to separate marsh sediments into different components, a step toward determining the origin of the carbon in the sediments. She hopes to apply her new experience to learning how soil affects the nutrients in produce.

Wong says she plans to keep in contact with her labmates after the program. “We all have very similar mindsets of personal growth and we’re also trying to get into grad school,” she said. That’s another benefit of these summers of research: While learning lab techniques and experiencing the unique challenges of scientific research, students like Wong also come away with a new network of mentors and fellow scientists-in-training who will help them over the hurdles ahead.