2016 Howell-CSUPERB Research Scholars Program – Annual Report

Dr. Doris Howell is a hero to many clinicians, community leaders and palliative care professionals in San Diego and across the nation. But to 165 California State University undergraduates and alumni, Dr. Howell is forever linked to their personal experience starting out as researchers and healthcare professionals.

“I would love to thank the donors for giving me this awesome opportunity. Through this program I was able to solidify the idea and confidence that I want to continue on a path of working in a lab environment. Through this program I have developed such a strong appreciation for the scientific method and the techniques that we use to increase our understanding.” – Jason Thomas (CSU Fresno)


2016 Howell-CSUPERB Scholars meet Dr. Howell, February 2016. Left to right: Alan Tran (San Jose State University), Dr. Howell, Karl Liboro (CSU Los Angeles), Brandon Strong (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), and Sima Chokr (CSU Long Beach).

Since 2001 CSUPERB has partnered with the Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research (DAHF) to fund mentored undergraduate research experiences. When I first joined CSUPERB, I was surprised that a local philanthropic group had chosen to fund undergraduates in this very specific way. But then I met Dr. Howell. Like many of us, she can look back and recognize the importance of mentorship along her career trajectory.

This formidable woman truly believes in the value of engaging and supporting early-stage researchers. She would never say undergraduates aren’t ready to make discoveries or contribute to the advancement of science. Dr. Howell also recognizes the importance of encouraging young scientists to tackle women’s health issues and design studies that might guide gender-specific standards of healthcare. Long before undergraduate research was defined as a high-impact practice (apologies to Dr. Kuh!), Dr. Howell thought it was important to invest in undergraduate students. When Dr. Howell recognizes a good cause, she is very good at building consensus among her network of physicians, philanthropists, and friends at the Howell Foundation! As a result, this wonderful organization has a long history investing in the CSU’s student researchers.

Later this week I’m meeting with the DAHF board to plan out the 2017 award process; this week we received applications from faculty-student teams across the CSU. To get ready for the board meeting, we read final reports from the 2016 Scholars, assess learning and update our outcomes database. As always, this process of “rolling up” information means that individual stories get lost; this blog post will help preserve voices from the 2016 Scholar cohort!


Ms. Sa La Kim and Dr. Jonathan Kelber (CSU Northridge) at the 28th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium, January 2016.

In this year’s CSUPERB annual report we featured Ms. Sa La Kim, who attended the American Association for Cancer Research conference in New Orleans to present her 2016 Howell-supported research project. Ms. Kim reported, “One of the most surprising [things] was that I understood much more than I anticipated. During many of the mini-symposium
talks…delivered by Ph.D.s and postdocs…I understood the reasoning behind the work, the reason for their work, and could think of multiple follow-up experiments for their hypotheses. This also made me realize that the level of work Dr. Kelber’s students engage in is phenomenal. This level of research is the push that I believe prepares students for a higher level of education.”

“Even though research is very taxing – having the support and camaraderie of my fellow students and mentors allowed me to make great advancements in my project.” – Cory Vierra (CSU Sacramento)

This is the kind of mentored research experience that Dr. Howell aimed to support when the program began in 2001.  Based on final reports, we find mentorship is important to students; it’s the smotivation_howellecond most important motivating factor students (2012-2016) report – see chart above.

“I would like to thank you for allowing me the honor of being a recipient of the Howell-CSUPERB Scholars program and for the many experiences I gained in the lab and at the conferences I attended. The research I conducted for your application process helped me to get over my fear of reading peer-reviewed journal articles. In the lab, I was able to learn new techniques, such as using enzymes to digest parts of biological molecules, how to purify using a technique called cytoplasmic purification, and how to use the larger equipment in the lab without direct assistance. Preparing for the conferences helped me learn how to bring together all of the data I collected, interpret it for a larger audience, and how to create a professional poster. Finally, presenting my research helped me to realize gaps in my knowledge base, which ultimately give me insight into how I can improve and I truly believe that I am a more well-rounded Biochemist because of it.” – Brandy White (CSU Fresno)

Howell Research Scholars spend significant time working alongside peers and with their faculty mentors. 67% of Scholars (2012-2016) report working more than 20 hours a week on their research projects (see chart here)!  Remember –

timeinlab_howellHowell Scholars typically take on this co-curricular activity during the academic year!  But we (and others) know that mentored research experiences lead to gains in self-efficacy, ability to self-identity as a scientist, and motivation to continue biomedical careers. The Howell Scholars self-report very large gains in all these areas, even those who had previous research experiences before being selected for these scholarships. We have the joy of reading about and observing these gains in the final reports students write.

“Thank you for selecting me as one of the Howell-CSUPERB scholars! It was a truly exciting moment to receive the award during the last annual CSUPERB conference. The support that the donors, mentors, and the university provides to young scientists like me is what drives us to achieve even more than what we believe we can do ourselves.” – Sa La Kim, CSU Northridge

A couple of years ago we began asking Scholars about the relationship they build with their faculty mentors.  We have only two years of data, but it’s clear that students see this relationship as important and helpful.  Not one Scholar (2015-2016) has disagreed with the statements listed in the chart below.


Howell Scholars are typically high-achieving students even before they apply to the program.  However, Mica Estrada (UCSF) and others have noted that research experiences buffer even these students from losing interest in biomedical careers. We and others care very much about scaling these experiences to a wider pool of students. With help from partners like the Howell Foundation, we can do so!

“I would like to thank the Howell-CSUPERB Schoolars Program for enabling me to pursue my interests in women’s health by providing the funding I needed. This was an unforgettable experience that I will always cherish.” – Alyssa Bowlsby (CSU Chico)



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    About Susan Baxter

    I'm the executive director of CSUPERB and the editor of this blog. Over my career, I've worked with teams to formulate new herbicide products, to figure out how transcription factors work in combination, to discover protein targets for new diabetes treatments, and to develop software for human population genetics studies. I started a biotechnology career because a couple of companies in Richmond, Virginia, offered me summer internships. Since then I’ve worked in major corporations, small start-ups, research institutions and academia. Now I'm working with CSUPERB, funding promising CSU students and faculty, and supporting biotechnology education and research across the 23 CSU campuses. It is a personal mission of mine to smash the myth of "the right academic pedigree." Biotechnology changes so rapidly that it is extremely limiting to ask students to chart an exact career path, focus on a particular technique, or build a defined technical skill-set. My career advice? Stay agile by keeping your mind open, exploring your own interests, and working alongside excellent colleagues on hard problems.

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