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.

Anticipated vs. Memorable

It’s annual reporting season at CSUPERB.  I know some of you are rolling your eyes – each year I write about how much fun it is to read final reports and survey responses. It never gets old!

Now that we’re getting organized for the 30th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium, I posted an album of photos from the 29th annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium (very late this year) at the CSUPERB Facebook page. But – to me – the anonymous comments from students and faculty symposium participants really explain why this annual convening is important.  Each year we find out that the symposium provides much-needed career advice for students and much-appreciated faculty networking and learning opportunities.

I especially like the “anticipated vs. memorable” session analysis in the post-symposium survey (see chart below).  Nothing much about the program surprises faculty participants; the majority (65%) have attended the symposium before. But the students don’t know what to expect from the Career Networking (CNS) and Graduate School Information (GSIS) Sessions; each year they comment that these symposium sessions were surprisingly impactful and memorable.

Number students naming symposium sessions as: 1) most anticipated and 2) most memorable.


We design both sessions as round-table rotations. That is – each student sits in on 4-5 roundtable conversations with industry professionals (in the CNS) or faculty advisors and recruiters (in the GSIS).  We typically have ~25-30 tables to choose from in these sessions. Not everyone gets to sit at their tables of choice, but we’ve learned that a tremendous amount of learning happens regardless. Over the years, we’ve noticed that fewer and fewer student participants decide to skip these sessions. As a result, we’re seating ~400 students in the CNS (photo below for perspective!) and ~250 in the GSIS – compared to only 80-100 students in years past. It takes a small army of mentors to make these sessions successful (you can read the list of 2017 GSIS participants in the detailed program) – but each year the post-symposium survey responses remind us it’s completely worth the effort needed to recruit participants!

Chris Haskell from Bayer explains business development careers to students at the 29th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium.


There is no way I can include all the quotes below in the upcoming annual report, in a CSUPERB monthly newsletter, or in a short “blurb” at the CSUPERB website.  So – I’m sharing them here at the blog where there is no limit on words or attention spans.

I invite you to read on. And consider sharing this blog post with students and faculty considering attending the 30th event!

ANONYMOUS QUOTES FROM POST-SYMPOSIUM SURVEY (collected after 29th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium, January 5-7, 2017)

FACULTY RESPONSES: “Tell us what you’ll remember about this year’s symposium”

This was my first CSUPERB and I loved it. A very unique organization and a great role model for inter-campus collaboration beneficial to all. A great resource for faculty and students and so much more.

I learned how to develop elevator talks, and enjoyed the diverse/multidisciplinary poster topics.

How much the students learned in the I-Corps sessions, the faculty teaching sessions, and collaborative sessions.

Collaborative insights and relationships among faculty and students. The poster sessions were great, I had not realized how many students would be presenting.

How much good science is being conducted within the CSU system and being taken beyond the system.

The need for better interactions between Academic & Student Affairs. The amount of pivoting that the I-Corps teams needed to do in developing a viable business idea.

*How inspiring the students were presenting their I-Corps projects. *How much it helped my students to present a poster.

The emphasis on career development at all levels (from undergraduate to faculty).

Hearing so many great stories of how ideas were developed into either significant research findings or great marketable products. (Plenary sessions, Don Eden Talks, Faculty short talks, Astrobio [Nikki Parenteau, NASA]

Interacting with students at meals and posters. I am a new faculty; I went to CalStateLA, so catching up with some old professors and colleagues and meeting new ones. Sharing a conversation with the co-founder of the MiniPCR company over lunch about technology and education.

Met and interacted with lots of new colleagues and learn lots of new things about CSUPERB. Also, learned a lot about I-Corps program.

My research students grew up so fast after attending the symposium.  The entire research profile of the CSU system.

My first year as a member of the FCG!

FACULTY RESPONSES: We design the symposium program with the idea it should “…expose the attendees to ways of thinking and techniques that are different from the ones they already know.” (Bruce Alberts) What did you learn about or hear about for the first time at the 29th symposium?

Different pathways taken by people who create successful biotech start ups.

Design principles of collaboration.

Learned about various techniques that I may implement that were presented in poster format by students.

How many CSU faculty used CSUPERB funds as a spring board for NSF or NIH funding.

Examples of some of the I-Corps projects…I didn’t fully understand this program until seeing these talks.

AstroBiology, definitely. I was fascinated to see a lot of chemistry in the talks as well.

Outside of the box ways to develop biotechnology and biotechnology education programs in the CSU.

I finally understand what type of effort is put into an I-Corps project.

I was excited by the MiniPCR talk – it was very cool. It reminded me that there are a number of groups these days looking to make science more affordable, more accessible, and more portable.

How chemistry faculty like Dr. Joe Pesek [2017 CSUPERB Faculty Research Awardee] devoted decades to applied research involving students and industry

The Friday morning talks were very informative b/c I had not thought about the potential of so many innovations.

At the poster sessions, I always learn about new ways of approaching questions based on what others are doing. Talking with colleagues I learned of some online resources I was unaware were available.

For me, Diego Rey‘s presentation brought home the idea that in biotechnology you shouldn’t look for a problem for your idea, but look for ideas to fix a problem like no other source had. I had heard that before, but there was something very special about the way Dr. Rey presented it that made me appreciate it more fully.

The importance of collaborating with Student Affairs on student success initiatives.

Acinetobacter is the most commonly found bacteria found on space craft before departure.

NIH data science grants at CSU campuses related to biotechnology.

There were lots of bioengineering ideas and posters that incorporated ideas and biology.

Learned about the I-Corps program for the first time. Was suggested I look into an NSF CAREER grant by the MiniPCR co-founder (I have been targeting NIH AREA and SCORE mechanisms).

I learned a lot more about microbiology and the techniques that microbiologists use than I usually hear at the meetings I go to.

Even though it is not fully new to me, the faculty research award talk gave me a very clear picture on how to collaborate with a company.

The extent of NASA’s support of astrobiology and the permafrost model. The Humboldt STEM freshman initiative. Also, of course, the Friday morning symposium on moving research ideas off campus. That’s a group of people who think very differently from the way I do!

That research could be incorporated into lower division biology courses. Very ambitious and impressive!

STUDENT RESPONSES: “Tell us what you’ll remember about this year’s symposium”

The opportunity to give a lightning talk, it was a very fun experience. I also enjoyed the poster session and the people that stopped by to talk to me were of many different fields.

The career networking tables were far and away the most useful and practical part of the entire symposium.

I liked the Astrobiology session and this is the first time a symposium has offered a career networking session.

I gave a talk for Eden [system-wide Graduate Research Student Award]. That’s one of the best experiences I have ever had. Thanks a lot!

What I’ll remember most likely will be the poster presenting during the morning session. I recall having about 15-20 people come to our poster, including about 4+ PIs, to ask about the poster and provide insight. I was absolutely surprised so many people would come and I was delighted to speak with people with similar academic interests as me!

The topic tables during lunchtime. It was very interesting hearing about other professors research and sometimes even connecting it to my own research.

I’ll remember how fun it was learning from other professionals in the same field as me and discovering new paths available after graduating college.

The inclusive feeling of being a part of a small symposium gathering.

Career networking is extremely helpful, I get to learn a lot of information from different career paths which helps a lot in deciding my own career direction for the future.

I also remembered the Wow Me Elevator speech as well. This was probably my favorite portion.

The thorough, specific advice that I was given from graduate students about graduate school. And the great food!

I really enjoyed the graduate school topic tables. I have attended other workshops for graduate school, but this was by far the most useful one I’ve attended.

The process of starting a biotech company.

This symposium was highly informative and inspirational. I made some good friends with students from other campuses and got to know about a lot of different research projects at other schools. It was a great experience to be with a group of like-minded students.

Having the opportunity with meeting industry representatives from career networking session and getting advice/tips from them.

I will remember the conversations I had at the Career Networking Session.

I will remember the poster sessions because I learned a lot from others and obtained feedback about my own project/poster.

It was my first time presenting my research, and so I am very glad to have been in such a welcoming, open environment with plenty of other students and professors all attending to learn and explore a bit.

The symposium was unlike I have ever experienced and was truly grateful for the experience.

This was my first poster session so I was a little nervous. I will definitely remember my first poster session.

I remember meeting new people and hearing about new ideas. This was inspiring.

I’ll remember the opportunity to hear from a variety of speakers from faculty to members in the industry. I’ll remember the knowledge and advice I gained from the sessions about Career Networking and Graduate School. I’ll also remember the experience developed from presenting my research to others in the field of biotech.

I really enjoyed the Friday morning talks and liked that it took the research that people have done for many years in school and used their knowledge and skills build up companies outside of campuses. It made me feel that even though you are a little fish in a big ocean, anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

[During] the career networking I meet two very different medicinal chemists who taught me a lot about grad school.

I really appreciated speaking with faculty and business professionals getting advice and insight on future paths.

I will remember the realization of the grand scope of CSU research. It was an awesome opportunity to network with other ambitious CSU students.

I’ll remember the presentations given by the Eden research finalists and the advice given during the networking session. And, of course, I’ll remember the opportunity to present my own research.

I’ll remember all the workshops regarding what to do (biotech or PhD) after I get my degree.

I met someone who is working at my dream job in the field I want to get into to.

I will remember the career networking session. I learned more about careers I didn’t know a lot about, such as patent law and FDA career positions.

The symposium overall was decent. I learned quite a bit about potential careers in the networking session…The poster sessions were more enjoyable than I expected…

Rain (which is a good thing).

Getting to see the large variety of job opportunities and possibilities available in this field, and being able to appreciate other people’s intelligence and creativity.

This was my first time attending the symposium, and I will certainly never forget the talks that I had with students and faculty from other CSU campuses who are working on such diverse experiments. Being in the company of such minds made me realize that each and every one of us thinks differently and it is this unique thinking that will help us tackle the many problems that we face in this world.

When it comes to starting a business don’t get attached to an idea. Be ready to listen and pivot.

This was the first time I really felt like a part of the scientific community.

Career networking. I enjoyed that this symposium discussed career opportunities along with graduate school. The symposiums I’ve been to only mention graduate school and ignore industry options. Lighting talks were fun too. It broke me out of my shell.

At the Career Networking session I met with a bioinformatics professional [David Spellmeyer] who was able to give me his unique perspective on choosing a career in academia vs industry.

Unfortunately, the thing I’ll remember most is trying to get home in the storm after the symposium and almost not making it.

The poster session was very memorable because it became a sort of testing ground for my knowledge in my own research, as well as getting feedback from various professors and other students.

STUDENT RESPONSES: We design the symposium program with the idea it should “…expose the attendees to ways of thinking and techniques that are different from the ones they already know.” (Bruce Alberts) What did you learn about or hear about for the first time at the 29th symposium?

That it was prestigious and a very integral part of any student planning on doing research in their future career.

miniPCR, it is amazing!

There are many applications to the science projects I am currently working on in my lab, besides those I had already considered outside of the biotechnology field.

I recall one of the talks…being concerned with elucidating the role of a thymidine kinase in tumorigenesis. That was the first time I heard of these types of experiments and was delighted to speak with the speaker once she finished her presentation.

I learned about camel antibodies and bacteria living in permafrost.

The “wow elevator” workshop was very interesting because I had never really considered it important to have.

I learned about CSU I-Corps for the first time.

I learned that it’s important to sit with and meet new people at conferences.

I learned about the importance of networking with the story of how GeneWEAVE came to be.

A lot from grant writing workshop [GRFP Workshop]

I learned about Dr. Pesek’s work with HPLC and how he was able to overcome some of the shortcomings of the technique by modifying the surface. I thought it was an innovative way to take a commonly used procedure and make it even better.

The fact that even as a student you can still bring your idea off campus.

The extent of other people’s projects, it was a lot more research than I expected.

Learned how research impacted biotech industry in the Bay Area.

I learned about new techniques that could be helpful for my research. A student performed similar data analysis as I did and she suggested using the technique that she uses which looks at the size of the molecule in order to see if it will be able to bind to the active site.

I learned about the details of applying for grants and applying to grad school.

I learned great tools to navigate biotech or grad school that I wouldn’t have learned in the classroom.

I heard great things about the symposium and that was my experience as well.

I didn’t know anything about astrobiology at all before the symposium and found that session very interesting.

I saw studies of how the engineers were developing tools to help people return to their normal walking gait.

To many to count, Highlight: Alginate Microbeads

I experienced/thought about how computer/data/bioinformatics/machine learning can really inform biological wet lab research.

The general exposure to what was presented was overwhelming, hard to pinpoint one particular thing.

The involvement and commitment toward research involving women’s health [Howell-CSUPERB Scholars].

I found it very interesting that the maker of the miniPCR is able to make PCR available anywhere in the world not only because of his design in the product but that the master mix can last about a month without needing to be in a -20 degree C freezer. I never knew that the enzyme is stable outside of the freezer and always work with it quickly to make sure it goes back into the freezer. So this information peaked my interest.

By learning about jobs in the biotech industry field, it was the first time I considered a career in industry rather than academia.

I did not know about how many different departments that biotech covers.

You construct your own successful career path.

At the Astrobiology Showcase I met someone from CSU Fullerton looking at the spontaneous generation of the building blocks of life. It was very different from what I study and very interesting.

That there’s opportunity everywhere.

I learned a lot about the PhD programs at different schools; this helped me make a decision to pursue a PhD rather than an MD, which I had originally aimed for.

There were uses of existing programs that would be able to monitor cranial pressure

The astrobiology showcase was completely new and interesting to me.

I learned about bacteria that can grow in clean rooms in space. I did not know that molecular biology had a place in space and the talks on astrobiology were all very interesting (except for the lightning talks – I did not care for those at all).

Quite a few things. Off the top of my head: the GRFP, astrobiology, different approaches to our research, and a bit about life after grad school (which could include more grad school).

I learned about I-Corps, how different schools are doing their research, and actually talking to people in the biotech world.

I enjoyed listening to the faculty presentation on CURE. I think it is an invaluable experience for student of all levels to be given the chance to engage in lab activities that afford them the opportunities to think critically, apply text-book knowledge to real world research, and solidify lab skills and confidence that will be critical in future coursework, research, and eventually employment.

The networking session exposed me to the fact that most graduates do not immediately end up where they expected, but everything works out eventually and careers are often better than what they originally expected.

I did not learn any novel techniques.

I heard about different vaccine formulations against HSV-2.

Through the I-Corps I was exposed to the bridge between business and research.

There were two memorable posters being one from CSU San Marcos on gold-catalyzed Friedel-Crafts acylation, the other being about synthesis of phosphinates that was also done with enantioselectivity.

I learned about different topics from fellow poster presenters at CSUPERB. I also brainstormed some ideas with fellow students to use for my research.

I learned about fetal alcohol syndrome, gene therapy, the process to establish a start-up company, and the possibility of life outside of earth and what kind of environment they have to survive.

That with your science degree you can work as a Patent Agent. Going to Law school was definitely a new idea for me.

One thing I learned from the 29th symposium is that the sharing of our experimental projects enlightens our minds and makes us widen our view of the problems in the world or even find new experimental techniques that might aid our own particular project.

I truly learned how to think like a scientist and question everything after the conference. It really opened my mind and gave me a lot of ideas.

I learned that building networks with other people will help me in the long run.

Some of the computational studies about phylogenetics and taxonomy were very interesting. When it comes to my own project; related groups weren’t too eager to share their methods and didn’t seem very interested in mine.

The early plenary program “When Research-based Ideas Leave Campus” allowed me to comprehend a better understanding for why I should push through graduate school.

I learned that cell aggregation may be due to the acidity of the cell’s environment.

I learned new techniques I can use in my own research project in regards to detecting post-translational modifications.

Most of what I heard from the symposium, I heard last year as well. I did not learn many new things.

I learned how to take a different approach with my project. I learned that I could measure how much energy the protein of interest was giving off to the substrate due to the conformational change using FRET. I am going to talk to my PI and there might be a collaboration for a new project. I am really excited to see where this goes.

My favorite thing learned was a poster on ant memory. I’m amazed that that is even knowable.

Industry. I learned about FDA and a company that works on the side effects of drugs. By the time I got to bioinformatics, I could not stop telling the advisor there how excited I am that there are so many opportunities for me after graduation. I will definitely be applying everywhere. Masters program, doctoral program, industry jobs and pharmacy school.

“Be curious” – Dr. Pesek

Not much, but I learned a lot about whole genome sequencing. Currently I know little about that and focus mostly on 16S rRNA.

I totally agree with the quote. In fact, this Symposium opened my eyes to other opportunities. I was thinking that academia was the only way to go. I feel excited about the possibility of working on my own and conducting my own research outside academia.

The idea that my research could be (and should be) applicable to something in the biotech industry instead of just being a research project. I think this is very important because most people think that the research that we do [produces a] “useless” piece of information that no one from the outside cares about. But the symposium showed that with a little creativity, we can make other people care about our research too.


Getting Off Campus: Upcoming Meetings of Note

Over the last 3 years, CSUPERB’s FCG and SPC have emphasized the need for faculty professional development on two fronts: 1) partnering off-campus and 2) cross-campus collaborations between academic affairs and student affairs.  The first is based on the belief that research PIs might have greater impact (and grant-getting success) by working with collaborators or community organizations off-campus.  The need for help in building better cross-divisional collaborations is rooted in our desire to improve student engagement and persistence in the STEM fields. Today I want to showcase two upcoming meetings that address these two CSUPERB goals!


The CSU I-Corps program, funded by NSF, purposefully sets aside funds to plug CSU-based researchers into surrounding regional innovation “ecosystems.”  As I said to a room of entrepreneurship educators last week at VentureWell Open 2017, “Several of our early attempts to organize regional meetings failed to lure even one academic biological sciences researcher off-campus despite pizza, beer, interesting topics, engaging speakers, or hip incubator venues. In biotech, the practice or habit of mind involved in talking with and listening to industry experts is extremely important.  Research-based product development is a highly partnered, decade-long endeavor. Identifying value-adding development milestones, de-risking strategies, and realistic paths to commercialization is something best learned alongside experts, typically found outside academia.”  PIs and students who participate in CSU I-Corps courses begin to build these networks, but diving into these ecosystems is important over the long haul if PIs want to develop solutions to health, nutrition and environmental problems.


Just this morning, David Shaywitz wrote a Forbes article (#goodread) that highlights “the translational gap so prevalent in medicine, the space between a promising idea (often captured in an academic publication) and one that’s been successfully implemented at scale.”  This gap is what inspired students to ask for entrepreneurship training back in 2010 and what motivates much of CSUPERB’s programming.


Next Thursday, April 6th, the Ignite22 one-day meeting in San Pedro (LA region) will feature posters and talks from CSUPERB, COAST and ARI investigators.


So we’ve been working with enthusiastic partners, BraidTheory, COAST‘s Krista Kamer and ARI‘s David Still,* to draw together academic researchers, entrepreneurs, industry and agency professionals interested in ag tech, biotech and blue tech next week!  Ignite22 intentionally gathers a multi-disciplinary mix of expertise to inspire solutions for the problems of the 22nd century.  I hope it provides an interesting excuse to get off campus!



If you’d like to attend to listen, learn and network – you can buy tickets at the Ignite22 website. Use the promo code CSUPERB22 to save $20 off the $50 registration!  Come with your research group and cheer on your colleagues!


Here is the list of researchers drawn from the CSUPERB, ARI and COAST system-wide communities who will give lighting talks at Ignite22 (there is a longer list of CSU poster presenters, as well):


  • Methods for the identification of novel cancer biomarkers and therapeutic targets, Jonathan A. Kelber, CSU Northridge
  • A neural-machine interface for the next-generation, neural-controlled prosthetic arm, Xiaorong Zhang, San Francisco State University
  • A universal quantitative chronometric paper-based point-of-use device, Nathaniel W. Martinez, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
  • A platform to identify drug targets of antibacterial compounds, Howard Xu, CSU Los Angeles
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Precision Agriculture using Multispectral/Hyperspectral Sensors and Machine Learning, Subodh Bhandari, Cal Poly Pomona
  • Converting agro-food waste byproducts to value-added food ingredients, Olive Yao Li, Cal Poly Pomona
  • Development of novel brewing yeasts by cell fusion technology, Choong-Min Kang, CSU Stanislaus
  • Towards a sustainable desal system with lower energy consumption and environmental impacts, Galen O’Toole (Achilli lab), Humboldt State University
  • An isolation chamber and system for monitoring stress and respiration in small marine organisms, Geoff Dilly, CSU Channel Islands
  • Next-Generation Fluorescent Hybridization Probes for DNA/RNA Sequence Identification, Byron Purse, San Diego State University


Secondly, I want to point community members to a new opportunity from EdInsights’ Student Success Network. If you were inspired by the “Achieving Inclusive Student Success through Purposeful Collaborations between Academic and Student Affairs” session at the annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium – this meeting is for you!  Deidre Sessoms (CSU Sacramento), Amy Sprowles (Humboldt State University), Stephen St. Onge (Humboldt State University), and Andrea Venezia (CSU Sacramento) worked together to pilot that January workshop.  I just finished working through the 29th annual symposium analysis based on the post-symposium surveys. Despite it being our first time out with the topic and workshop format, participants hung in there with us and reported back that they will remember the things they learned…but also had a thirst for more.  If you’re in this camp, I encourage you to pull together a campus team and apply by April 9th (next Friday!) for the one-day (May 12th) meeting.


Details are here (provided by EdInsights)


“Using Data to Support Student Learning and Success: Opportunities and Challenges in the CSU
10:00 am to 4:00 pm on Friday, May 12, 2017; optional networking breakfast from 9:00 to 10:00 am
Fresno State University – Henry Madden Library


Overview – Campuses across the country and within the CSU are using data in new ways to understand where students are facing challenges and how institutions can better support student learning, engagement, progression, and completion.


These approaches, including predictive analysis, hold promise for students. However, they also have the potential to exacerbate inequities if they are not implemented in thoughtful and appropriate ways. This meeting provides an opportunity to explore this topic through cross-campus, cross-role dialogue. Participants will:


  • Build relationships with CSU colleagues who are involved in campus-level efforts to strengthen data use to improve student success and equity.
  • Identify and share current successes and challenges related to using data.
  • Reflect as campus teams and apply lessons to individual campus needs and contexts.
  • Create a plan to strengthen ongoing efforts on their respective campuses.

Who should attend – Campuses are encouraged to send teams of up to five individuals, including at least one faculty member, one representative from student affairs, and one representative from institutional research. Travel expenses will be reimbursed by the CSU Student Success Network.

Register now – Space is limited. Registration is open March 27 through April 7.”


*WRPI holds their annual meeting that same day – if we try this again – they’ll be there!

The National Academy of Sciences investigates undergraduate research

I typically wait until I’ve had time to distill, study and ponder new reports before dissecting them here – but since the blog has been dark too long already I’ll write a quick post on a Friday afternoon.

The National Academy of Science (NAS) issued an advance version of a new report, “Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities,” edited by James Gentile, Kerry Brenner, and Amy Stephens.  You can download a free, e-version here: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24622/undergraduate-research-experiences-for-stem-students-successes-challenges-and-opportunities

The NAS report is a “must read” for all CSUPERB-affiliated researchers, mentors, administrators and leaders.

In the report introduction, Dr. Gentile writes, “Undergraduate research is in itself the purest form of both faculty teaching and student learning.” CSUPERB faculty, administrators and presidents will recognize this sentiment. We all embraced the same view some time ago, recognizing that research is “must-have” education in biotechnology-related fields.

During campus visits this month I met faculty and administrators who opined or theorized that there might be different student benefits derived from full-time or summer undergraduate research experiences (UREs), off-campus internships and apprenticeships, or course-based research experiences.  I always answer that the student experience and impact of a collaborative student-faculty research experience is “the same as” a summer internship at a company, an I-Corps short course, or a course-based research project – as long as they are well-designed, inclusive and student-centered.  The new NAS report discusses this issue straight-on.

Because enrollments in biology system-wide are on the upswing (to put things conservatively), offering well-designed, team-based discovery and inquiry-based projects for all students is no small challenge for faculty and administrators.

Six years ago CSUPERB recognized we would need to be agnostic to scale high-impact, experiential learning experiences.  Since then we’ve provided seed funding to faculty system-wide to grow their labs and offer research experiences. But we also partner with R1 universities to offer experiences for stem cell researchers and biomolecular machinists. We seed large-scale curriculum changes to accommodate research projects, like the SIRIUS project at Sac State.  We fund first- and second-year students to become scientists earlier in their academic careers and look for ways to institutionalize bridge programs and learning communities.  We have also organized mentoring workshops for faculty with help from the NIH BUILD-funded campuses. We offer programs for nascent student entrepreneurs. We still hope to design and sustain themed, multi-campus, multi-disciplinary “consortia” research projects – a stretch, strategic goal we haven’t yet succeeded in piloting.

The NAS report recommends the collection of “Data at the institutional, state, or national levels on the number and type of UREs offered, or who participates in UREs overall or at specific types of institutions.”  CSUPERB does this and studies the long-term outcomes for the student researchers we fund; system-wide we’re trying to do this better.  A small group of us – organized by Holly Unruh at CSU Monterey Bay – will be presenting our work at the 9th Annual AHSIE Best Practices Conference (April 9-12, 2017) at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Let me know what you think about the NAS undergrad research report. I’ll read it more carefully too.  Early reports about it feature the NAS emphasize the need for more educational research on what makes UGR impactful. Will the report inspire you to try new mentoring approaches or offer new discovery experiences to CSU students? Do you have new motivation to improve your assessment or analysis of what works in your department? Drop me an email, tweet using the #undergradresearch tag, or join the CSUPERB LinkedIn group to keep the conversation alive (especially when this blog goes dark!)!

Thankful for the rains and rainbows

rainbowsThis time of year the sun goes down early around 5pm here in San Diego. The early sunset has come to symbolize “high symposium” season to me each year.  As the days shorten, the CSUPERB program office goes into that impossible last gear (to 11?) juggling details for the annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium.

We started the day today in San Diego with rain showers and a couple of rainbows (a view across Penasquitos Canyon above).  San Diegans get giddy about rain these days so the CSUPERB program office is in a pretty darn good mood.

Rainbows aside, the real reason we’re feeling good is that the FCG/SPC committees have done top-notch work whipping the symposium program into shape this year.  We aim to get most program details settled by December 1st; we’re heading into the Thanksgiving holiday with our speaker roster and our hotel banquet order 99% complete.

We’ll have an all-time high of 290 posters from 22 CSU campuses presenting at this year’s symposium. Did you see that Dr. Penny Boston (NASA Astrobiology Institute) will be headlining the opening plenary session on Thursday evening?  With NASA funding Rakesh Mogul (Cal Poly Pomona) organized a CSUPERB Astrobiology Network this year. To celebrate we’re featuring astrobio-themed talks and presentations throughout the symposium. On Friday morning three speakers with amazing stories will talk about turning research-based ideas into solutions (yes, including one at the International Space Station). We’ve also signed Bruce Alberts (USCF) up to talk about mentoring students and non-academic life science career paths with the Faculty Consensus Group on Sunday. We are grateful to Gilead Sciences for their symposium sponsorship; with their support we involve greater numbers of I-Corps teams, Nagel finalists and Eden competitors.  Symposium registration closes December 1st – make sure to save yourself a spot at what will be an outstanding meeting of the CSU’s biotechnology community!

Tomorrow we have our last November Zoom meetings with the people doing the work and running the multitudes of committees: Jenn Lillig (posters), Paula Fischhaber (awards), Math Cuajungco (Graduate School Information Session), Sandy Sharp & Bori Mazzag (Biotech+Design workshop), Jill Adler-Moore & Koni Stone (professional development workshops & GRFP workshop), Daryl Eggers & Lorenzo Smith (Astrobio & Bioengineering Networks), Jim Prince (Career Networking Session), Katherine Kantardjieff (Soft Skills workshop), Stanley Maloy (CSU I-Corps), Kathie McReynolds (Faculty talks) and Mike Goldman (FCG meeting). We’ll surely uncover details that need attention but I have every confidence that working at level 11 the program office will be able to handle them!  I am exceedingly thankful to work with these dedicated, can-do, no-drama faculty and dean organizers!

We’re also very happy to have Oscar Zavala in the CSUPERB office.  He started work a short 3.5 weeks ago as our new Student Programs Specialist.  Oscar fills the void left (or capacity built) by our two VISTA members, Shannon Palka and Paige Hernandez.  Mr. Zavala is on a steep learning curve, but luckily he has notes from the VISTA members and help from the very capable Dayna Zarate to teach him the ropes and smooth the onboarding process. (don’t even get us started at the thought Dayna’s graduating from SDSU this spring!) Not only is Oscar coordinating CSU I-Corps teams as they work toward final Lessons Learned weekend at the symposium, he’s going to send out his first batch of award letters (Howell Research Scholars) later this week. We hope he’s still feeling good (rainbows!?) about his decision to join CSUPERB! Look for him at the symposium and introduce yourselves – he’ll be the point of contact in our office for students we support and alumni networks.

And what about that CSUPERB program office team?  Pam Branger, Tyson Gadd, James Schmitt and I have worked together as a team for a big chunk of time (not counting). It takes a high-performing team to operate at Level 11 year after year after year.  The symposium is the most visible evidence of the good work they do – but there are at least 12 other programs the office runs, involving and connecting about 1000 students, faculty and administrators in any given year. I am so very grateful to them.

Happy Thanksgiving to the CSUPERB community across California – we’ll see you in the New Year in Santa Clara!

CSUPERB team gathers before January 2016 symposium, Garden Grove, CA. Clockwise from bottom left: Paige Hernandez, Tyson Gadd, Julie Scalisi (volunteer), Thomas Myrick (volunteer), James Schmitt, Susan Baxter, Pam Branger, Jose Barreto Bezzera (visiting fellow), Dayna Zarate & Matthew Reyes (volunteer).

CSUPERB team gathers before January 2016 symposium, Garden Grove, CA. Clockwise from bottom left: Paige Hernandez, Tyson Gadd, Julie Scalisi (volunteer), Thomas Myrick (volunteer), James Schmitt, Susan Baxter, Pam Branger, Jose Barreto Bezzera (visiting fellow), Dayna Zarate & Matthew Reyes (volunteer).

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)



Yet Another Annual Report Reminds Us Why

One of the arcane things university administrators do is to comply with regulations.  Most of us see compliance as a necessary part of our jobs to remain good stewards of public funds, retain the trust of applicants, and justify budgets spent.  This spring Presidents’ Commission Chair Haynes and I gained authorization from CSU Executive Vice Chancellor Loren Blanchard to operate CSUPERB as a system-wide program for another five years.

treeTo remain in good standing, EO 1103 (the CSU regulation pertaining to multi-campus programs) requires programs to issue annual reports. As CSUPERB regulars know, we’ve been issuing annual reports since 2008, long before EO 1103 was put into place. We compile reports because it’s downright fun to hear from the students and faculty members CSUPERB supports. Annual reporting also allows us to see what programs are working and which Requests for Proposals (RFPs) need tweaks.

Each summer I spend a couple of joyful administrative months corresponding with CSUPERB-funded investigators. I celebrate faculty researchers’ wins and get all sentimental hearing back from alumni and recent graduates.  After nearly 10 years on this job, my LinkedIn network is full of CSUPERB alumni working in biotech companies or research institutes, grinding towards doctorates, and practicing law and medicine. I also see new courses and programs, seeded with CSUPERB grants or ideas planted during workshops we’ve designed, become part of how campuses across the state educate students and prepare them for life after graduation.  But, unless you’re talking with me daily, these wonderful stories from individual CSUPERB-funded students and faculty get “rolled up” into higher-ed jargon, trendlines, bar charts and graphs.

I hope this year’s annual report (linked here) gives readers some sense of CSUPERB’s reach, influence and impact across the CSU system and the state.  Our newly redesigned website gives us a platform to expand on some of these stories and share them throughout the year. It also gives us space to archive all our annual reports in one place for a historical record. Let me know what you learn!


So Many Research Scientists Doing Well



The New York Times added (yet again) to the many articles about the oversupply of biomedical PhDs looking for jobs as professors.  This new article is titled, “So Many Research Scientists, So Few Openings as Professors.”

The article concludes with this advice, “For those thinking of science as a career, said P. Kay Lund, director of the division of biomedical research workers at the National Institutes of Health, perhaps the best thing would be for a mentor to sit down with them and have a heart-to-heart talk, preferably when they’re still undergraduates.”

I posted this on the CSUPERB Facebook page and a follower responded, “I am starting my PhD in September. Looks like I better focus on industry when I graduate.”  I was glad to see the resulting discussion. I am not sure Facebook comments count as the “heart-to-heart talk” Dr. Lund recommends – but we’re doing our best to raise students’ awareness of career path options (HT to Dr. Kelber* at CSU Northridge for jumping into the fray!).

Of course here at CSUPERB we’re interested in finding out where the undergraduate and graduate students we support go next in their careers.** We want to know whether the education they received in the classroom and working alongside CSU faculty mentors prepared them to be ‘life-long learners’ and creative problem-solvers capable of contributing throughout society.

Last year at annual reporting time we made our first attempt to reach out to Howell and Presidents’ Commission Scholar alumni.  This year*** we mined final reports, surveyed graduates, and followed up with about 700 undergraduate and graduate students we supported over the last handful of years. I can’t resist sharing our first cut at the data (preliminary data! thus the screen-shot quality of the figure!). Amazingly only 16% of the CSUPERB-supported students are lost to the sands of time and faculty lab websites (we loved great examples like this, this and this!); we were able to determine the remainder graduated, completed their degree programs or continue in their studies on CSU campuses.

Our “CSUPERB alumni” are doing great things and working in fascinating organizations nationwide.  The word cloud at the top of the post adds some flavor to these rolled-up data (the bigger the font size, the more CSU alumni are working or studying in that organization****). About 26% (an earlier version of this post said 32%) of CSUPERB-supported student researchers entered graduate school (this figure mixes undergraduate and graduate student outcomes; see slightly larger figure here). The majority (58%) have degree-relevant positions in biotech companies, universities, hospitals, government laboratories and non-profit research settings.  Most are still hands-on scientists, clinicians and engineers working in research, production and design facilities.  Some of the alumni who have been working for a while (> 3 years) are working their way into management roles, gaining regulatory expertise and even starting companies.  About 10% are employed in a field unrelated to biotechnology. By including CSU I-Corps alumni, we see business students don’t always continue on in the life science industry – but some do!

We’ll talk more about this data at the summer Faculty Consensus Group meeting Monday, August 1st. I’m looking forward to the discussion with CSUPERB’s committed and effective faculty mentors!





*Dr. Kelber noted the NY Times article didn’t “cite any employability stats for those with PhDs vs others (it only states that most PhDs were employable).”  Some graduate schools are starting to track graduates’ career paths and even publicize the outcomes. For instance, UC San Francisco (UCSF) posted their 2012 data on a website (https://graduate.ucsf.edu/basic-sciences-career-outcomes). The NIH, NSF and others are also improving their data collection methods, aiming to better track career outcomes for doctoral level researchers.

**There’s a new level of controversy about linking career outcomes with higher education. It is extraordinarily inexact to try linking life outcomes to a set of genes; likewise it’s difficult to predict career outcomes on a combination of courses and co-curricular activities like undergraduate research.  So – I’ll use the classic “SEC-type disclaimer” here; our data are not “forward-looking,” it’s based on past student cohorts and can’t be used to predict individual outcomes!

***We did this work with the very capable help of our CSU STEM VISTA Summer Associates, Ms. Zarate and Ms. Stelter!  They investigated “last known status” of ~700 students supported on CSUPERB Major Grants (2011 – present), Howell Scholars (2007 – present), Presidents’ Commission Scholars (2011 – present), Student Travel Grants (2011 – present) and I2P/CSU I-Corps participants (2012 – present).

****Yes – it appears that CSUPERB-supported alumni seem to beat a wide path to UCSF…

Word cloud image credit: http://www.wordclouds.com/