Applause & Pain for AmeriCorps


I’d like to share photos from yesterday’s moving close-of-service luncheon for the first class of CSU STEM VISTAs – an AmeriCorps program.  It was a lovely event at Rancho Los Alamitos next to the CSU Long Beach campus.   Our own Shannon Palka was selected by her peers to do the “closing thanks” for the group.  Afterwards Shannon and I agreed that we haven’t really come to grips her public service stint at CSUPERB is ending!

I am not sure it’s been captured anywhere at the CSU STEM VISTA program level yet – but I was asked to present our first year CSU I-Corps experience at the National Innovation Network (NIN) meeting in Reston, Virginia, last month. To remind infrequent readers, CSU I-Corps is a systemwide entrepreneurship education program for curious researchers and nascent academic entrepreneurs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  We are already finding it to be a highly engaging student program with surprisingly large dividends of learning and commercialization activities systemwide. I didn’t realize before attending NIN that I was one of only a handful of I-Corps Nodes/Sites asked to present our first year experience.

There is no group more demanding and perfectionist than the CSUPERB program office. We tend to think all 23 campuses will show up for all our programs.  So we were a bit daunted that “only”  34 teams, 116 students and 24 faculty members from 9 universities have signed up for I-Corps in our first year. Apparently NSF thought that was pretty good for a $100,000/year investment.

I received a surprising burst of applause, shouts and hoots from the audience when I said 44% of the year-one CSU I-Corps participants are female.  Afterwards people told me this is a significantly higher female participation rate than many of the other more engineering/computer science-heavy I-Corps programs.  The other reaction I got to my presentation was amazement that CSU campuses (and colleges) would work together to offer programs like this – it was a culture unfamiliar to some participants.  These are features I take for granted in my job.  But the NIN meeting served to remind me our efforts to build and nurture this systemwide, diverse (in many ways!) community are not insignificant; new programs like CSU I-Corps and investments in CSUPERB build upon our 30 year history and a deep base of good will.

These early CSU I-Corps outcomes are also the result of Shannon’s student outreach. Despite our formidable CSUPERB community, we historically do our work through faculty and research office networks, as well as chair and deans’ councils. For I-Corps to go systemwide, we need connections to student groups.  Shannon’s effectiveness was also due to her ability to fit into the CSUPERB program office team and her willingness to just dive into (or work around) our unforgiving administrative calendar of rotating programs and events.  I wish she could have been in Reston to hear that applause.

So yesterday I clapped long and loud for the CSU STEM VISTAs. This is an outstanding group of motivated, strategic thinkers – a really remarkable group of young leaders.  It was an honor to be a part of this.

In the midst of this emotional week for the nation and our program office, I learned that Congress has proposed cutting AmeriCorps programs.  Even as we make progress on many complicated policy fronts across this nation – we still manage to trip up on little things that matter.  As Pell grants and biomedical research received additional funding, AmeriCorps will face deep cuts.  This kind of short-term, give-and-take, winners-and-losers process is a constant in national policy, budget negotiations and priority setting, but I find it so disappointing to watch tiny programs like AmeriCorps get swept under the losers rug.

The day before I heard this bitter news, I had a meeting about a Kresge Foundation-funded project around student success.  The CSU faculty and administrators on the project all pointed to the pain point* around the need for temporary help (people = release time or human resources!) in ramping up programs and experimenting with new approaches around student success initiatives. We know that impactful and effective STEM programs require cross-divisional collaboration, relationship-building and even culture change before they become part of the fabric of how students learn.  The VISTA program addresses this very real (and painful) pain point for resource-challenged organizations like ours, as well as non-profit and community service programs nationwide.

I’m hoping some of you might have read this far, are willing to invest in a longer-view of community service, and be moved** to contact your legislators to restore this little program with such a large impact on resource-limited programs, economically distressed communities, and promising young people nationwide.


*Pain point is an I-Corps phrase that comes from Alex Osterwalder’s Value Proposition Design and other writings on understanding customer or market needs.

    Changing of the Guard: Strategic Planning Council 2015-16


    usualsuspectsAs the academic year draws to a close, CSU campus presidents nominate deans to serve on the CSUPERB Strategic Planning Council (SPC).  We had a large turnover of deans this year, resulting in five openings on the council, and a Chair and Deputy Chair election.

    The SPC just completed a strategic planning cycle so you might assume the turnover could be associated with that extra workload. But – no – deans are the usual suspects for leadership roles across the academy.  Indeed, we lost two of our SPC deans this year to new jobs: CSU Fresno Dean Boyer is now vice president of agriculture and dean of Montana State University’s College of Agriculture and Cal Poly Pomona Dean Lapidus took on the presidency at Fitchburg State University.

    I’m relieved and happy to report we had tremendous interest in SPC service. The new dean appointments to the 2015-16 Strategic Planning Council are:

    Anne Houtman (CSU Bakersfield, College of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering),
    Forouzan Golshani (CSU Long Beach, College of Engineering),
    Katherine Kantardjieff (CSU San Marcos, College of Science and Mathematics),
    Lorenzo Smith (CSU Sacramento, College of Engineering & Computer Science), and
    Lynn Stauffer (Sonoma State University, School of Science & Technology).

    Despite the extra work associated with the new strategic plan last year, Deans Golshani and Kantardjieff put their names back in the hat for reappointment; they wanted to see the new plan played out! The 2015-16 cohort of deans will join Deans Stanley Maloy (San Diego State University, College of Sciences) and S.K. Ramesh (CSU Northridge, College of Engineering and Computer Sciences) on the council.   The continuing SPC faculty members are: Jill Adler-Moore (Cal Poly Pomona), Daryl Eggers (San Jose State University), Paula Fischhaber (CSU Northridge), Michael Goldman (San Francisco State University), Jennifer Whiles Lillig (Sonoma State University), Bori Mazzag (Humboldt State University), Kathie McReynolds (CSU Sacramento), Bianca Mothe (CSU San Marcos), Sandy Sharp (CSU Los Angeles) and Koni Stone (CSU Stanislaus). We can’t thank all these good folks enough for their service to CSUPERB.  Unlike Keyser Soze, they will leave their fingerprints all over the programs and work CSUPERB does these next three years.

    We also found out today that Mike Goldman and Kathie McReynolds were re-elected as SPC Chair and Deputy Chair, respectively.  Mike and Kathie make tremendous commitments to CSUPERB with their re-elections. In addition to their regular jobs as teacher-scholars on campus, they’ll be calling into our weekly operational committee calls for another three years.  Wait until they hear we’re thinking of turning those meetings into Zoom videoconferences going forward…!

    Personally I look forward to working with this newly configured SPC team – their expertise combined will undoubtedly strengthen biotechnology education and research across the CSU. I also thank the CSU campus presidents involved for their willingness to share these extraordinary academic leaders with CSUPERB. I am quite thankful for this diverse, high-achieving and opinionated group of people – they make my job infinitely more interesting and do-able!


    Image Credit: MonsterGallery (×12-movie-poster)

      Spring Grantmaking

      Last week we announced the CSUPERB spring grant awards.*  We spend the largest percentage of our annual budget on spring grants – last week we sent $567,088 to CSU students and faculty all over California.  That total includes both our “major grant” (seed grant) programs and the faculty and student travel grant programs.

      Last week I had Seth Godin’s mantra in my head, so it’s rewarding to see where the money is going. We’re sending CSU engineers, kinesiologists, and biologists worldwide to scientific and engineering conferences in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Stockholm and Beijing.

      We’re funding collaborative faculty-student research projects in medicinal chemistry, computational modeling, synthetic biology and more.  Numerous PIs are planning on collecting next generation sequencing data sets, reflecting a sea-change in the way biological systems are characterized in CSU research laboratories these days. We’re funding joint ventures, including one between Dr. Jaqueline Padilla-Gamino, a new assistant professor at CSU Dominguez Hills, and the Catalina Sea Ranch. Together they are going to study temperature-tolerant strains of mussels that shellfish farmers can depend upon going forward. The joint venture also draws upon the expertise of faculty at CSU East Bay and CSU Long Beach. CSU Dominguez Hills student researchers will learn both biotechnology and aquaculture hands-on practices and skills along the way.  Drs. Katie Wilkinson, Susan Lambrecht and Cleber Ouverney won a Curriculum Development grant to work with departmental colleagues to overhaul San Jose State University’s (SJSU) introductory biology curriculum to better align with the Vision & Change Report. Roughly 900 SJSU students per year will be impacted by the new course and laboratory sequence.

      Many thanks to the fifty or so CSU faculty we recruited to review proposals this spring. This spring’s five review panels were the most diverse we’ve ever seated. They patiently worked through the new CSYou online review system with us. The expected disciplinary culture differences played out in front of us (engineers like terse, cogent descriptions; biologists like much more detailed and elegant prose). But we are also seeing generational shifts in biotechnologies. New Investigators bring with them postdoctoral experience in using genome-wide, system-wide research and data management methods.

      The Vision & Change report predicts many of these cross-disciplinary, fast-changing aspects of biological science.  It’s not easy; a couple of our first-time reviewers had a difficult time letting go of their disciplinary expertise and learning to take a “generalist view” of the diverse seed grant proposals CSUPERB considers. However, based on the reviews and proposals I read this spring, the CSU faculty are keeping up and even leading on many new education and research frontiers. There is no greater job than investing in the CSU’s students and faculty – I can’t wait to see what they do!


      *For those of you waiting for CSU I-Corps decisions – be patient, we’re wrapping up interviews and administrative i-dotting and t-crossing this week.

        2016 CSU Biotech Symposium: January 7-9, Hyatt Regency Orange County

        “Put people on stage that your community can relate to, who are authentic, and who are already trusted by the people who will be paying [registration fees] to attend your event.”  – Brian Fanzo


        Brian Fanzo’s article reminded me of the Strategic Planning Council’s meeting on April 12th.  During the meeting we reviewed the post-symposium survey data that suggests the January 2015 annual symposium was a huge success.  With 97 (69%) of the faculty and 141 (36%) of the student participants reporting, nearly all of them would recommend the event to their peers.*

        Somehow we’ve figured out how to make this event a reflection of who we are as a community. We also involve a formidable roster of people “from the trenches” who tell compelling and authentic stories of what it’s like to work in the life science industry as researchers, product developers and entrepreneurs. Looking back at the symposium speakers these last eight years, I find a who’s who of California (and the nation’s) biotech leaders and their exciting technologies and companies. I also see New Investigators becoming well-funded PIs, department chairs and academic leaders.  The symposium is a “delivery device” for our strategic plans, but it’s also a powerful community building event & leadership academy!

        Opening Session Speakers at the 27th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium (left to right):   David W. Martin, M.D. (CEO, AvidBiotics), Rachel E. Haurwitz, Ph.D. (President and CEO, Caribou Biosciences, Inc.),  Karen Burg, Ph.D (Vice President for Research & Professor of Chemical Engineering, Kansas State University & AAAS–Lemelson Invention Ambassador), President Leslie Wong (San Francisco State University) & Susan Baxter (CSUPERB) An Adventure in Genome Engineering: From the Lab Bench to the Startup World –  A Tortuous Path of Entrepreneurship -

        Opening Session Speakers at the 27th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium (left to right): David W. Martin, M.D. (CEO, AvidBiotics), Rachel E. Haurwitz, Ph.D. (President and CEO, Caribou Biosciences, Inc.), Karen Burg, Ph.D (Vice President for Research & Professor of Chemical Engineering, Kansas State University & AAAS–Lemelson Invention Ambassador), President Leslie Wong (San Francisco State University) & Susan Baxter (CSUPERB).

        At the April SPC meeting we wrestled with the program budget for academic year 2015-2016.  The SPC faced yet again rising costs associated with the annual symposium.  It’s a huge event, attracting 646 participants this past January. The SPC knew it was going to cost ~$36,000 more to run a similar event in 2016.   Yet again we debated cutting out Thursday workshops, limiting room nights or raising registration rates.

        But Dean Rich Lapidus (Cal Poly Pomona) stopped us.  Pointing to the remarkable impact of the well-received event, he advocated we defend the “secret sauce” that makes the annual CSU symposium special.  As the lone true business person in the room (he’s Dean of the CPP College of Business Administration), we listen to him on marketing and budget matters.  Rich explained that by cutting a professional development workshop here or reducing networking opportunities there, we would undermine the event and effectively turn away our community.

        So the SPC decided we’ll produce another three-day event January 7-9, 2016, at the Hyatt Regency Orange County.  Mark your calendars and look for earlier-than-usual poster submission deadlines!

        Meanwhile, we wish Dean Lapidus and his family all the best.  He’s leaving the CSU to become the 11th President at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. At the April meeting SPC members made many, many, many comments to him about the beautiful spring weather we were having in California. Despite the teasing, the SPC will miss Rich’s good counsel, his patience with our technical jargon and his business perspective very much. In true CSUPERB community-building spirit, he helped us learn how to use technology commercialization and CSU I-Corps as a bridge between science, engineering and business schools.  We hope another patient and pragmatic CSU business dean will step up to continue the momentum!**


        *96% (students) and 100% (faculty)

        **Nomination packages for new SPC Dean appointments are due in the CSUPERB Program office (; 619-594-2822) Monday, May 11, 2015.

          Breaking Radio Silence with a New Strategic Plan

          It’s been a tough winter/spring in the CSUPERB program office. We faced month-long jury duty (yes, they can do that to 4-person state program teams!) and influenza outbreaks of at least three different varieties.

          Even though the wheels came off the blog here, we presented a new strategic plan to our Presidents’ Commission (they approved it) and after some edits the Chair, President Haynes, submitted that plan to Chancellor White for his approval. We ran our spring grant programs, closed the books on our 27th annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium, organized peer review meetings (involving a whole new Sharepoint-based review system – thanks to Tyson & the Sharepoint Gurus at the Chancellor’s Office!), and kicked off the second CSU I-Corps cohort. We submitted a proposal and found out we’ll have two new CSU STEM VISTA members joining our team in July (not that Shannon Palka, our current VISTA member is replaceable…) Last weekend we presented our AY15-16 annual operating plan and budget to the Strategic Planning Council (they struggled with it but we have something to present to the Presidents’ Commission). Wednesday we received applications for the Fall CSU I-Corps cohort.  Over the next month or so – I promise to report out on all this activity here at the blog.

          So – imagine my delight to receive notice this afternoon that Chancellor White approved our 2015-2018 Strategic Plan!  It is the culmination of a process we started last August at the summer Faculty Consensus Group meeting.  But more importantly it represents a tremendous amount of thought, analysis of survey data, input from faculty, students and administrators system-wide, interviews with partners and, yes, committee-based word-smithing and grammar checking.  I take the blame for all spaces between sentences.

          Now we have a strategic framework (or sand box, if you prefer) for the next three years. With the energy and devotion of the CSUPERB community and support from our administration, I know we can make the CSU biotechnology student learning experience an engaging and valuable one for all!  Many thanks to everyone, including Chancellor White, for your support.

            Melding Cultures

            We’re a week away from the 27th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium and I can guarantee you we’re not ready (yet)!  We’re in the “final details” stage. We’re finding typos and mistakes in our program (published online this year for the first time!), printing table signs and packing boxes to ship to Santa Clara.  But – we’re shutting down here for the New Year holiday and so I can’t help but be pensive.

            I find the best break in the action and – simultaneously – a way to keep in touch with the big picture during hectic times at work is to find time to read.  I usually read for a couple of hours in the morning, and again at the end of the day. The morning reads, especially, clear my mind for writing and the tens of emails I’ll compose in a given day at CSUPERB. I’m omnivorous (scientific journals, newspapers, books on higher education, blogs, nordic noir, etc.).  But 2014 definitely tilted my reading to electronic formats over hardcopy.  I also found myself leaning increasingly on Twitter and Feedly to find new, challenging, simply delightful, and kind-of-weird delightful stuff. This open access to global thought (and, yes, silliness) is a huge change from my early days as a scientist when the quality of your campus library often dictated whether you were working at the bleeding edge or reinventing wheels. What a change in culture.

            As the symposium takes flight, we’re also working on a new three-year strategic plan. We’re about 2/3 of the way through a planning process started at the August 2014 Faculty Consensus Group meeting.  Luckily I’m working with the Strategic Planning Council on this project.  I read something today that explained why our strategic planning retreat went so smoothly, “Participants need several years of regular meetings to build up enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts. They need time to see that their own interests will be treated fairly, and that decisions will be made on the basis of objective evidence and the best possible solution to the problem, not to favor the priorities of one organization over another.”  This is a part of CSUPERB culture of which I am very proud; we were not so aligned eight (short!) years ago.

            One reason for past discord was the multiple disciplines – biology, chemistry, math, business, engineering – that come together under CSUPERB’s programmatic umbrella. We speak different languages. Despite our harmonious retreat in November, one theme that emerged from our conversations and our fall faculty surveys was the need to build even stronger and more effective internal (within-the-CSU) partnerships. Our old explanation for why CSUPERB faculty banded together was to build “critical mass” across our chronically underfunded public university. But I think the underpinning reasons for the CSUPERB faculty’s desire to collaborate has shifted to reflect how information is shared, science is done and teaching practice has evolved in 2014. We currently support biology and math collaborations (a theme of one of our symposium workshops). Internal collaboration might mean academic affairs and student affairs working together – intentionally and tightly – to help all students persist to a STEM degree.  It might also mean working together across campuses to offer innovative, “massively-parallel-undergraduate” research opportunities around a real-world genomics research project.  It might mean melding business and science/engineering faculties to better teach biotechnology commercialization concepts.  All of these collaborations serve to set students up for success in college and in the world after graduation.  It’s a good thing for students – but how can faculty and administrators get better at it without losing needed disciplinary expertise and perspectives within the university?

            I’m thankful – as always – for the multi-disciplinary voices and opinions shared with me in person and online as we do this work. CSUPERB’s work won’t end with the year – we have plenty to do in 2015 (like that symposium Jan. 8-10th!)!  A happy New Year to you all!

            Readings for the New Year

            Lior Pachter (December 2014) The two cultures of mathematics and biology.  Bits of DNA Blog.

            Amy Celep & Sara Brenner (October 2014) Integrating Intentional Influence into Your Strategy. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

            Mark J. Graham, Jennifer Frederick, Angela Byars-Winston, Anne-Barrie Hunter, Jo Handelsman (2013) Increasing Persistence of College Students in STEM. Science Vol. 341: pp. 1455-1456. 

            John Kania & Mark Kramer (Winter 2011) Collective Impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

            Dana O’Donovan & Noah Rimland (January 2013) The Strategic Plan is Dead. Long Live StrategyStanford Social Innovation Review.

            Chris Newfield (December 2014) Trends We Can Work With: Higher Ed in 2015. Remaking the University Blog.



              CSUPERB Trends

              I had to do it.  I used Google Trends to check out CSUPERB.

              Here is the result:

              Google Trends search on "CSUPERB" (12-3-2014).

              Google Trends search on “CSUPERB” (12-3-2014).

              Why that periodicity in searches for CSUPERB?  Well – if you dial in – the peaks are in the November-December-January timeframe. Yep.  It’s symposium season.*

              The team here is fielding dozens of phone calls and emails daily and the annual CSU biotechnology symposium website is getting hundreds of hits. Symposium registration closes this evening at 5pm.  It’s also time to remember to use the #CSUPERB hashtag! Tomorrow we’ll still be nailing down the details, recruiting mentors and putting final touches on workshop designs before we all meet up in Santa Clara January 8th. Hope to see you there!


              *Symposium season overlaps most years with rainy season in San Diego, where the CSUPERB program office is located. We are happy to report rain these last two days as well!