We Make Breakthroughs Happen

A student examines a culture in an SF State laboratory

SF State advances science by ensuring labs are open to all

As part of her work developing strategies for therapeutic intervention in hepatitis B viral infection, Audra Johnson regularly isolates immune cells from specimen livers and spleens. It’s tricky work that isn’t for the faint of heart, but the San Francisco State University alum (B.S., ’04) says she’s been dealing with “blood and guts” since she was 13 years old.

“My mom, a single parent, has worked in the oil fields almost my entire life, and on three different occasions she was involved in on-the-job accidents that could’ve killed her. As the oldest, I had to patch her up and take care of her because we couldn’t afford to go to a doctor,” said Johnson, who grew up in a rural area near Bakersfield. “As I would stitch her up, it became very clear to me that the only way you could support yourself where I am from is to get a ‘good’ job. Unfortunately, the ‘good’ jobs are also associated with accidental death and dismemberment. So I thought, ‘Well, if I go to college maybe I can get a job where I won’t have to worry about dying.’”

Johnson’s hep-B research — work she does as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) — doesn’t require her to risk life and limb. But reaching that safe place wasn’t easy, and it required a bridge: SF State.

Johnson is one of a growing number of young scientists who attribute their success to SF State’s Student Enrichment Opportunities (SEO) office and two of its programs — Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) and Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) programs. All are part of the University’s array of initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in science by supporting students from underrepresented groups.

“I would not be here without them,” said Johnson, who is of African American and Native American descent. “I wasn’t prepared for college-level courses and would have fallen through the cracks.”

SEO was launched 25 years ago by Biology Professor Frank Bayliss. As a scientist doing research at SF State, he saw the need for something like the SEO Office first-hand.

“We typically invite students who are interested and motivated to come and work in our labs, and year after year I would invite minority students and they would say, ‘I can’t. I have to work,’” Bayliss explained. “Our students are mostly first-generation [college-goers], and most receive financial aid. They’re often coming out of the poorest, lowest-performing school districts. So it’s not about what they would like to do or what they’re capable of. It’s about what they can afford to do.”

SEO helps by offering fellowships that provide money to students so they can focus on developing skills rather than paying bills. MARC provides a $12,336 annual stipend and partial tuition to qualifying juniors and seniors, for instance, while RISE supports students with partial tuition and $11,544 a year. The programs, both of which are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), also make paid summer research internships available at SF State and other institutions so that students can pick up the valuable lab experience that opens more doors after an undergraduate degree is in hand. The difference between the programs: MARC targets students from underrepresented groups who are interested in research careers in biology, chemistry and biochemistry, computer science, math and physics, while RISE is aimed at students with similar backgrounds who hope to pursue Ph.D.s in the biomedical or physical sciences.

“Basically, I can tell a student, ‘Come work in the lab, and we’ll give you $1,000 a month. You don’t have to work at McDonald’s,’” said Bayliss.

MARC and RISE aren’t the only programs at SF State aimed at increasing diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Far from it. Efforts spearheaded by University faculty members and departments include:

  • The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, which provides students with stipends, research and conference opportunities and career development workshops thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation and the California State University Office of the Chancellor
  • SF BUILD (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity), a collaboration with UCSF (supported by a $17 million NIH grant) that focuses on innovative approaches to teaching and student support to shepherd more would-be scientists into biomedical research
  • The Center for Cellular Construction, a cutting edge National Science Foundation-funded cell research partnership that enlisted Bayliss to serve as its diversity director
  • Promoting Inclusivity in Computing, which seeks to pave the way to biotech careers by boosting biology majors’ computer skills
  • Training the Next Generation of Stem Cell Scientists, a state effort (through the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine) that awarded $3 million to SF State to support internships and training for science-minded students as well as outreach efforts to diverse communities

All these initiatives have paid off. According to Diverse Issues in Higher Education, SF State has become one of the nation’s top producers of minority graduates with STEM degrees. And the number of SF State students from underrepresented communities who go on to science-oriented graduate programs has skyrocketed, according to Bayliss. Between 1984 and 2003, just one College of Science graduate from an underrepresented community is known to have earned a Ph.D., whereas today MARC alone is tracking 40 alums in Ph.D. programs. As Bayliss sees it, that’s not just good news for those who value inclusivity and diversity for their own sake. It’s good news for everyone.

“We’re largely a science-based society now. So looking to the future, there’s a need for science literacy and scientists,” said Bayliss, who traveled to the White House to receive a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2009. “In California right now more than half the population [are minorities]. If we’re going into the future and we’re not tapping into the largest segment of our population for our future scientists, we’re in deep trouble.”

“There are a lot of studies that show that when you have a diverse group of people problem-solving, you come up with more innovative ideas,” added Biology Professor Carmen Domingo, a key player on the University’s SF BUILD team and one of the faculty members participating in the Center for Cellular Construction collaboration. “It’s important for science to have everyone involved, not just a select few.”

When she was an undergraduate at a different university, Domingo was very aware that she wasn’t one of “the select few.” She didn’t know of any Latina/o professors, something that made it harder to feel a sense of belonging on campus. That’s one of the reasons a school like SF State is so important.

“We are one of the most diverse campuses in the country, and the faculty in the sciences is diverse, as well,” she said. “That’s very uncommon.”

SF State alum Andrea James (B.S., ’05) noticed, and was inspired by, that diversity. Half Mexican, James grew up in La Puente, just east of Los Angeles. When she went off to college (the first in her family to do so), she knew next to nothing about the scientific method or how to conduct research. But at SF State she saw right away that learning was something anyone could do if they had the interest and drive.

“I had four Latina female faculty in front of me,” she said. “I saw two of them raise their children from birth to about 5 years old, when I left. There were two LGBT faculty. There were Native American faculty. There was such diversity that to me there was never a question of whether I could do it. I watched it happen right in front of me.”

Today an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, James credits support she received through RISE and MARC with making it possible for her to graduate from SF State  and go on to inspire a new generation of scientists.

“It’s something I keep in mind as an instructor now,” she said. “I never try to cover up my background. There are students who haven’t had that role model in their lives. Seeing me, they see that it’s all possible.”