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:

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!)!

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 ( 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:

Workshop Report: Preparing Students in Bioinformatics

Bioinformatics7I’m pleased to turn the CSUPERB blog over to Bori Mazzag (Humboldt State University) and Sandra Sharp (CSU Los Angeles)!  Bori and Sandy are both members of the CSUPERB Strategic Planning Council.  They jointly organized the “Preparing Students in Bioinformatics: Challenges, successes and opportunities” workshop held January 8, 2016, during the 28th annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Orange County. Here is their workshop report:

This year for the first time, the CSUPERB GATC (Genomic Analysis and Technology Committee) and the QB (Quantitative Biology) faculty networks hosted a joint workshop at the 2016 CSU Biotechnology Symposium, entitled “Preparing Students in Bioinformatics: Challenges, successes and opportunities.” The two groups are led by Sandy Sharp (CSU Los Angeles, CSULA) and Bori Mazzag (Humboldt State University), respectively.

The GATC has focused on research-based curriculum since its inception in 2010. QB has worked on exploring and disseminating best practices in quantitative (mathematical, statistical and computational) preparation of CSU biology students. The two interest groups have organized separate sessions at the CSUPERB Symposium since 2012, but with members of each group expressing a desire for a workshop on bioinformatics, we decided to undertake a combined offering. It turned out to be a powerful, well-received strategy!

We concentrated on two main themes: (1) Does the current bioinformatics training offered by CSU campuses meet workforce needs? (2) What are some differences between the skills needed by end users/biologists versus programmers/software developers?

To address these questions, we invited a panel of CSU faculty, industry employers and hiring managers: Jamil Momand (Chemistry and Biochemistry, CSULA) and Nancy Warter-Perez (Electric and Computer Engineering, CSULA), Paul Wolber (Agilent and San José State University, SJSU), Soheil Shams (BioDiscovery, Inc.), and Pleuni Pennings (Biology, San Francisco State University, SFSU).

The "Preparing Students in Bioinformatics" workshop featured a "bi-directional" panel of CSU faculty, industry employers and hiring managers. The panelists were (left to right): Paul Wolber (Agilent and San José State University), Soheil Shams (BioDiscovery, Inc.), Pleuni Pennings (Biology, San Francisco State University, Nancy Warter-Perez (Electric and Computer Engineering, CSU Los Angeles) and Jamil Momand (Chemistry and Biochemistry, CSU Los Angeles).

The “Preparing Students in Bioinformatics” workshop featured a “bi-directional” panel of CSU faculty, industry professionals and hiring managers. The panelists were (left to right): Paul Wolber (Agilent and San José State University), Soheil Shams (BioDiscovery, Inc.), Pleuni Pennings (Biology, San Francisco State University), Nancy Warter-Perez (Electric and Computer Engineering, CSU Los Angeles) and Jamil Momand (Chemistry and Biochemistry, CSU Los Angeles).

The ~45 workshop attendees included faculty members from 18 of the 23 CSU campuses and 4 California Community Colleges. Faculty from a wide range of disciplines participated, from Biology, Chemistry and several different types of Engineering. Participating faculty members either aspire to or are already involved in bringing bioinformatics into the classroom, often as components of original student research. The workshop facilitated the sharing of expertise and challenges in genomics/informatics research and teaching, with the aim of providing the best possible learning experiences and outcomes for our students.

The workshop began a panel discussion, followed by round-table discussions among the participants, with panelists and other faculty participants serving as discussion leaders. Near the close of the session, each table shared a few important lessons learned. Workshop participants who had curricular materials to share also spoke briefly about their work and the materials they were offering.

First, each panelist described his or her training and current work in genomics/informatics research and education. It was fascinating, and even somewhat surprising, to realize that each panelist arrived at their current position by career paths that required them to cross disciplinary or sector boundaries. For example, Paul had long been working at Agilent when he became an external evaluator and advisor for the SJSU bioinformatics program. The collaboration grew, and Paul has now been teaching an engineering course on next-generation (“next-gen”) sequencing technologies at SJSU for several years. He also described positive impacts his teaching job had on his own industry career.

Drs. Warter-Perez and Momand describe a biology-computer science course they co-taught. Bori Mazzag (Humboldt State) moderated the panel discussion.

Drs. Warter-Perez (left) and Momand (center) describe a biology-computer science course they co-taught. Bori Mazzag (right, Humboldt State) moderated the panel discussion.

Jamil and Nancy gave a detailed description of the bioinformatics course they team-teach to computer science and biology students. They shared strategies and philosophies around designing a successful course that meets students at their current level, but also pushes them to complete an interdisciplinary project. As instructors from very different backgrounds, they model the sort of interdisciplinary collaboration they ask from their students in the course.

Soheil talked at length about the need for programmers at his company and the pressures his and other, similar mid- and small-sized bioinformatics companies feel in competing with the likes of Google or Uber for software engineers. From his perspective, one of the greatest challenges is to inspire (or recruit) and train (and retain) programmers who are willing to forego some potential earnings to work on and solve the new and impactful problems that biology has to offer.

Pleuni shared information about her own training that built on a biology background but became increasing quantitative. The bioinformatics course she developed draws upon that experience.Bioinformatics6

The academic panelists spoke on skills or knowledge they want to impart to students and what challenges they face as instructors with students varied levels of preparation. Industry representatives talked about important skills needed by programmers and end users, but seen as lacking in current job candidates. Not surprisingly, both written and oral communication were mentioned as a critical skill for all students entering the job market. Several examples were given of the specific types of writing required and it was clear from Paul and Soheil’s comments that although writing is more emphasized in teaching STEM fields nowadays, there is a need for continued improvement in this area.

A discussion developed around the term “bioinformatics” itself. Soheil argued that it is too broad an umbrella term that encompasses vastly different types of jobs and skills.* This point resonated with many in the audience and came up as an important takeaway in the post-workshop survey. As Bioinformatics2it often happens in interdisciplinary settings, the panelists and audience were split on the relative importance of increasing depth of knowledge in a discipline versus interdisciplinary training. Often those who advocate for depth see interdisciplinary projects primarily as a way to teach students how to communicate and work with others from a different discipline. Others see interdisciplinary training as a fundamental, new approach to teaching content to students. This perspective often implies that the current academic silos do not provide the right organizational structure for the sort of work that graduates do or problems they face after leaving school.

As CSU faculty members, it was interesting to us to discover the diverse ways campuses, departments and researchers have devised to teach bioinformatics and mentor their students in this field. Because bioinformatics is so new and technologies evolve so quickly, professionals and professors in the field must stay agile. For some, it means learning new programming languages, building new collaborations around research questions, pooling resources, or sharing equipment across campuses.

One challenge for faculty has been finding resources and a network of CSU researchers in the field, dispersed in home departments across engineering, computer science or biology. CSUPERB, and the GATC specifically, has been instrumental in facilitating networking across the CSU. Bay Area and Southern California campuses certainly benefit from having tight connections with industry (for example, the SJSU/Agilent relationship). But far-flung or isolated campuses, such as CSU Chico, have successful bioinformatics concentrations as a result of purposeful hiring and faculty networking.

Bioinformatics4The panel discussion was followed by round-table discussions involving all participants. One table gathered faculty who all teach a bioinformatics course. The course designs described varied greatly. Much of the discussion centered on recruiting students to take bioinformatics courses (for whom programming is often a deterrent) and how to teach programming most effectively. Most agreed that for biology courses in which informatics software is used as a tool, it is necessary to treat the software itself as a “black box” to some extent, but there was disagreement over where the right limit was.

An interesting side-note: MANY participants wrote they would like to see further workshops and training on programming, either in R or Python or other languages. CSUPERB will look into inviting Software Carpentry to offer a workshop to faculty this year.

Janey Youngblum (CSU Stanislaus) motivates students by getting genomes sequenced by 23 and Me. This resonated with many of the participants. While there are several problematic, ethical and financial considerations around using students’ genomic data, making research questions personally engaging and relevant clearly struck a chord among the workshop participants.


Amy Sprowles (Humboldt State) takes notes as Judy Brusslan (CSU Long Beach) describes CyVerse as a bioinformatics teaching and learning platform.

Two other tables had extensive discussions about programming and software. Clearly, finding the right software to teach at the right level has been a huge obstacle to effective teaching and desired learning outcomes. As more on-line tools become available, and some methods standardize, this hurdle may become easier to cross over time. One of the most animated table discussions was on iPlant (or now CyVerse). The discussion morphed into a mini-tutorial by Judy Brusslan (CSU Long Beach) on how to use CyVerse for the analysis of large data sets. Because CyVerse has cloud-based data storage and analysis tools, many concerns about availability of computational power and storage space have been alleviated.

Several members of the audience, including David Keller (CSU Chico), Jose de la Torre (SFSU) and Renaud Berlemont (CSU Long Beach), talked about their curricular materials and shared materials or posted links to them. We also learned that Jamil and Nancy’s book, based on their team-taught course, is going to be published this year.

In the immediate post-workshop survey, a handful of main takeaways were mentioned. These open text replies are representative:

  • “There are (effective) strategies to teach bioinformatics to bio students without programming skills”.
  • “Next-Gen Analysis is possible at CSU.”
  • “Finding out what’s going on related to bioinformatics on other campuses.”
  • “Learning about different resources to use in my courses.”
  • “Lots of cool resources and programs at different institutions.”

The session also received very positive feedback from faculty participants who responded to the post-symposium survey. We have been in contact with the workshop attendees, disseminating workshop notes, contact information and curricular materials. There is a lot of energy around bioinformatics (for lack of a better term!) networking and developing a workshop around hands-on skills (perhaps programming!) next year.

— Bori Mazzag & Sandy Sharp

*Editor’s note: A recent search of bioinformatics-related corporate (non-academic) job position openings in California (Jan. 2016) used these technical keywords: statistics, data analysis, data management, quality control, version/revision control, software engineering, methods development, algorithm development, expertise in a series of scripting languages (“Perl or Python, R, shell scripting, and MySQL”), programming skills in a series of languages (“Python or Perl/Java/C++; shell scripting and R”). Many job descriptions dedicate more text to “soft skills” (communication, agility, teamwork, etc.) than technical skills.

CSUPERB-supported students – who are they?

Each year CSUPERB organizes and hosts the annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium. The 28th annual event January 5-7, 2016, brought together 403 student researchers from 21 of the 23 CSU campuses.*

The post-symposium surveying is now complete.  96.4% of students responding (28.5% of those who attended) would recommend it to other students. 100% of faculty responding (40% of those who attended) would recommend the meeting to students or other faculty.

These endorsements are a real testimony to the Faculty Consensus Group (FCG) members (if you follow that link you might want to hit play and mute your computer!) who put significant thought, work and creativity into this year’s program.  We also – of course – had a small army of invited speakers, industry mentors and evaluators who brought their perspectives, stories and verve to the meeting.  It’s amazing to see all the moving parts come together each January. This was my 9th symposium. The fall ramp-up to the symposium is draining from a small office organizational viewpoint – but I can tell you the CSUPERB program office floats through the year on the energy and goodwill we harvest during the symposium!

CSUPERB and our sponsors subsidize the cost of symposium participation for CSU students.  Each year as they register, we ask students for information about themselves so that we can track the make-up of the students we support. I’m a sucker for free web-based software so I graphed out student responses using Piktochart this year (see below – or surf to the dynamic version on the web:  I can’t tell you how many times during the year I use this data for grant proposals and presentations outside the CSU – so I wanted to share this data with the CSUPERB community. We’ve been tracking this dataset for 3 years now; this year’s responses are not significantly different than previous years’ data.

It’s policy report season so I’ve recently read lots of thought-provoking and sometimes frustrating higher education, workforce development and research-related monographs. However, one worth discussing here is a new (prepublication) report out of the National Academies Press (NAP) titled, “Promising Practices for Strengthening the Regional STEM Workforce Development Ecosystem.” (Free PDF available at It leans heavily on National Science Board (NSB) data found in the 2014 “Revisiting the STEM Workforce” report.

As readers of this blog know well – I’ve often railed against general calls for more STEM graduates.  The NAP and NSB reports do a great job describing the “heterogeneity of the STEM workforce and lack of consensus on how to define it…” However the reports (rightly IMHO) offer data and citations that focus on “high level of attrition, especially of women and underrepresented groups, among students in STEM majors.”  That’s why I’m so proud to share our data on the student researchers and entrepreneurs who presented at the 28th CSU Biotechnology Symposium.

The recommendations outlined in the NAP report map surprisingly well to the strategies adopted by CSUPERB these past 8 years or so. The annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium itself is a classic example of a “larger-scale, convening event” called for in the report!  The NAP report lists promising practices, including:

  • “More hands-on, project-based learning activities for students.
  • Professional development for teachers in project-based learning instruction.
  • More opportunities for students, teachers, and parents to interact with STEM professionals and learn about employers and career opportunities.
  • Outreach to females and underrepresented minorities that includes opportunities to meet role models and mentors who look like the students. 
  • Mechanisms to facilitate connections between teachers and STEM professionals who wish to function as volunteer speakers and/or mentors.”

The annual symposium program incorporates these promising practices, including the opportunity to showcase the high level of “hands-on, project-based” research and entrepreneurial projects the CSU’s students produce.  The 264 posters and 13 CSU I-Corps team presentations represent faculty-student research supported by NSF, NIH, HHMI and other national funding organizations. While none of the CSU campuses are classified as Research 1 universities, the hands-on, project-based learning opportunities mentored by CSU faculty systemwide are of outstanding quality and have tremendous impact on the career trajectories of our students.**

The educators, industry professionals, sponsors and policy leaders who come to the symposium “recognize the importance of strong college-university-industry collaboration in preparing the STEM workforce of the future.” CSUPERB works with “intermediary organizations,” like BIOCOM and California Life Sciences Institute, who understand the bi-directional partnerships needed to nurture a healthy biotechnology industry ecosystem. Doctoral program representatives and community college colleagues join us at the event to build bridges and pathways for our students and theirs.  We thank Gilead Sciences, Inc., Agilent Technologies, BioDiscovery, CourseKey, Grifols Biologicals, Inc., Rare Science, Inc., Slater Hersey and Virun for their financial support – but also their employees who were a vital part of the 28th annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium.  The National Science Foundation provided funding for the CSU I-Corps program – a very popular, new part of the symposium program. These relationships and ongoing partnerships are the basis on which CSUPERB carries out its strategic goals; the annual symposium is the “convening event” that brings us together again face-to-face (even in nano-second drive-bys!).

The real reason we all keep coming back to the annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium is to meet the students who come to the symposium each year. Having 9 symposia under my belt now, my LinkedIn network is beginning to swell with CSU alumni working in the biotechnology industry. This year many of them came back to the symposium as mentors and speakers.  I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to see them again, hear their stories and watch them give back to the current students attending the symposium. Join us next year – it’s a great event!

*See three symposium-related photo galleries on the CSUPERB Facebook page: (1) Speakers, Career Networking Session and more, (2) The Eden & Nagel Symposium Award programs and (3) CSU I-Corps

**For student impacts, see here and here. Most CSU faculty in biotechnology-related departments earned their PhDs and spent postdocs at R1 universities in the US and they do world-class research!  Browse this year’s poster abstracts for a flavor of the biotechnology research going on across the CSU.

csuperb-supported-students (2)

Guest Blog: Paula Fischhaber Teaches in China

The CSU’s biotechnology faculty are remarkable educators with wide-ranging research interests and partnerships both on and off-campus. CSUPERB continues to focus on building partnerships as part of our professional development programs, but many (most?) research-active CSU faculty already have wonderful research collaborations and external partnerships worldwide, as you’ll see!  The beneficiaries of successful and collaborative research partnerships? Students, of course! Faculty who collaborate with external groups bring not only cutting-edge science and technology into their CSU classrooms and labs, but also new perspectives to their teaching and mentoring.

Occasionally someone will tell me a great story and I ask them for a “guest blog post.” As regular readers can tell, our busy faculty don’t take me up on the offer very often!  But – Paula Fischhaber (Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at California State University Northridge & member of CSUPERB’s Strategic Planning Council) did so despite a crazy, start-of-semester schedule!

Paula-Great WallPaula traveled to Beijing this July to teach a one-week Biochemistry course at Capital Normal University (CNU), a relatively small university (~20,000-25,000 students) in China. That’s Paula on the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China in the photo on the right.  Here are her reflections on the experience:*

My class constituted 20 hours of instruction with 2-hour sessions held morning and afternoon each day. Most of the students in my course were senior Biology majors who had taken Biochemistry the previous year, taught in Chinese. Many Capital Normal University (CNU) students aspire to enter the teaching profession in the K-12 age range. Others plan to pursue Ph.D. degrees following graduation, so I got lots of questions about applying to doctoral programs in the United States. One student was even planning to take part in a summer program at UCLA within a few weeks of my return home.

Class PhotoI was first struck by how the demeanor of the students (photo above) was so similar to those at Cal State Northridge. There were some who were more outgoing and eager, others that were shy or timid about speaking in English. Some were highly advanced, both in their English language skills and their understanding of biochemistry. Some were so afraid of me that they would scarcely make eye contact. As the week wore on, the ice broke and they asked increasing numbers of questions, especially during the afternoon interactive problem-solving sessions (yes, flipping the classroom has its advantages universally). The students were ALL very respectful toward me, and several brought food items to share that represented Beijing specialties that I was not to leave town without trying.

One particular student was soft-spoken and shy-ish but had an eagerness about the material that was contagious for the other students. He asked many questions throughout the week and I could see was not just improving his English, but also his understanding of the biochemistry, which was gratifying for me. On the last day of class, I called on him to explain the last figure of a paper and (being shy about his English) was shaking a little as he reached for the words, which he did successfully.

At the end of the class when I was saying my good-byes, he came up to me to say that all the students had learned a lot from me and they were grateful for the class and would miss me. As he waved and left the room, I realized that he might have had to summon courage and to practice his remarks ahead of time. Those are the moments in a professor’s life that make it all worthwhile, but it reminded me that Cal State Northridge students are also often intimidated by their professors and must summon courage to ask a question or come to office hours.

Paula_CaiXia_BGIDr. CaiXia Guo, at the Beijing Genomics Institute, recommended me to the summer course director to teach the short course. CaiXia and I worked together in my postdoc lab group and recently coauthored an invited review in Epigenetics (here we are right next to the 2008 Olympic village; the Olympic torch is in the background).

In conversations with Chinese faculty during the week, I came to realize that we share much with the Chinese academicians in our struggles to get and maintain research funding streams in the face of fewer and fewer available grant dollars. We share their frustration with time-consuming bureaucratic barriers. Like us, the Chinese universities are facing a difficult budget climate that leaves faculty underpaid and buildings with significant deferred maintenance. What I heard over and over was how competitive everything is because they have so many people. Everyone worries about whether they will be able to get and keep a good job. Overall, I gained a new appreciation for the education and research system in the U.S.


*Lightly edited for style and clarity.


CSUPERB in the news



Before I hit the road for vacation, I want to share some quick news hits.

The new 2015 Vision & Change Report (“Chronicling the Change, Inspiring the Future) from AAAS, NSF, HHMI, NIH and USDA highlights CSUPERB.  Check out pages 8-9 (pages 28-29 of the pdf)!  The feature content is pulled from a poster that Jim Henderson and I presented at the 2013 Vision and Change meeting.  Who knew our participation would result in CSUPERB’s inclusion in such an important national publication? published a teaser story yesterday at their website; I’m quoted in it. Surprisingly Ms. Wren (the author) wanted to follow up on things she read on this blog. CSUPERB is not alone in seeing the connections between high-impact practices, deep learning, and a creative and professional life sciences workforce.

Our work on the WM Keck Foundation-supported PKAL Framework project is featured in the Spring 2015 issue of Peer Review, titled “Navigating Institutional Change for Student Success in STEM.”   This work led to the CSU STEM Collaboratives projects across the CSU, just now ramping up their summer bridge programs, as well as follow-on funding from Keck to support a STEM Service Learning Research Study led by the Center for Community Engagement.

The CSUPERB community was happy to see that the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee (ICOC) approved a 5-year Bridges 2.0 program.  CSUPERB will host proposal writing workshops for campus teams after the official Program Announcement issues (we’re nervously eyeing the predicted October 1 deadline looming).  The CSU is proud of the work the existing Bridges programs have done; it is wonderful our Bridges graduates are and will continue to be integral to the growing regenerative medicine ecosystem.

Lastly yesterday was a big day for the Innovation Corps (I-CorpsTM).  The White House announced an expansion of I-Corps across a new set of federal agencies, including the Small Business Administration.  With SBDC’s hosted on many CSU campuses, I see many interesting ways to scale what we’ve started with CSU I-Corps.  I’ll keep monitoring these new I-Corps programs as they launch.

I occasionally struggle to explain the reach, effectiveness and impact of the CSU’s biotechnology education and research network.  How can I explain the power (and magic?) of a renewing, system-wide community created to support biotech education and research? Why invest in CSUPERB, its peer review community, its collective experience “on the ground” in deans’ offices, departmental units, in classrooms, laboratories and communities, its institutional memory?  In short – I think communities like CSUPERB provide an effective way to scale up evidence-based ideas, test out promising ones, or “bend” culture (or accelerate tipping points, as NSF names it). When we learn together, we can make real and meaningful impacts on student success, in innovation ecosystems, and on scientific and technical frontiers.  This is deliberate, intentional systematic work that plays out over time. It doesn’t flit from one shiny object to the next; it shouldn’t die on the vine if one player exits the stage.

So – while I’m vacationing – keep pushing the envelope, CSUPERB!


*Photo credit:

Thankful for True Partnerships

Yesterday we sent out award letters to the new 2015 Howell-CSUPERB Research Scholars, along with our annual program report to the Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research board.

Howell Research Scholars are undergraduates who work alongside faculty researchers in biotechnology labs across the CSU.  For this program, the research projects proposed are relevant to women’s health.  The Howell Foundation defines women’s health quite broadly. As a result Howell projects range from basic research on the effects of ethanol on neurological development in fruit flies to clinical work to explore the links between sexually transmitted infections, sexual behavior and health outcomes in a campus setting.

The impact of this program is best communicated by the Scholars themselves (see page 2 of the report, linked here).  As part of their final reports, we ask Scholars to self-report on their gains as a result of the research experience (click on the image below to get the larger, visible version!).  We use David Lopatto’s SURE format (mostly) to

Students rank their learning gains as a result of undergraduate experience using a range from "very small gain" (=1) to "very large gain" (=5).  The 2014 Howell Scholars class reported average gains in the "large gain" to "very large gain" range!

Students rank their learning gains as a result of undergraduate experience using a range from “very small gain” (=1) to “very large gain” (=5). The 2014 Howell Scholars class reported average gains in the “large gain” to “very large gain” range. Interesting, the lowest self-reported gains this year related to science writing skills.

investigate learning gains as a result of the undergraduate research experience.  Even though most of the 2014 class of Howell Scholars had worked previously in a research laboratory, all of them reported large or very large overall benefits from the Howell-sponsored experience.

Most scholars work on their funded projects part-time during the spring term, then immerse themselves in the project over the summer. This kind of opportunity – to take a deep dive into a single research project – remains open to only a minority of undergraduate CSU STEM students.  In answer CSU faculty and administrators continue their work to develop new external partnerships, internship programs, and project-based learning in courses throughout the undergraduate curriculum.

Many of the Howell Scholars mentioned the importance of their faculty mentor. We know the immersive, working partnership and team-building between student, peer and faculty researchers offers a context in which students see themselves as scientists (often for the first time).  The teamwork and camaraderie students experience in working laboratories helps students persist even in the face of technical set-backs (and long experiments!).

“…there was a week in mid July; my experiment was behind schedule, and I need to report my data to my PI the next week. I therefore decided to work full time over the weekend. I told my fellow students that they didn’t have to go. However, all of them, all 3, decided that they’ll come in anyway, to help me get my work done. It was that moment that I realized how good of a team I had with me.” – Phuc Nguyen (CSU Long Beach, 2014 Howell Scholar)

True partnerships – shared goals, camaraderie, teamwork – are special things.  Our thirteen-year-long partnership with the Doris A. Howell Foundation is something we are thankful for here at CSUPERB.  Together we’ve been a good team!  The Howell donors remained committed to undergraduate researchers during the Great Recession; not all organizations were so steady in their giving during those years.  Likewise, CSUPERB was fortunate to maintain our budget for this program even in the face of deep cuts in state support for the CSU.

Both CSUPERB and the Howell Foundation have a long-view (influenced by the remarkable Dr. Howell) on educating physicians, clinicians and researchers. We know the effect of two terms spent in a research group plays out over decades and careers. We look forward to hearing from our Howell Scholar alums in February; every three years we reach out to them to find out where they are.  They often write heartfelt notes; they are still exceedingly thankful for the opportunities the Howell Foundation, its board and its donors made possible.