2012 Presidents’ Commission Scholars Announced

For the last couple of weeks the number one search term here at the CSUPERB blog has been “presidents commission scholars.”  We’ve also fielded calls from anxious and curious student and faculty applicants.   Yesterday award letters went out to 25 undergraduate researchers at 13 different CSU campuses.

The Presidents’ Commission Scholars will work with faculty mentors  and other student researchers this summer. The diversity of projects is fascinating. Students will explore infectious disease mechanisms, plant development, blue biotechnology, molecular diagnostic development, medical device design, and biofuel production.  The FCG has been particularly interested in building capacity system-wide for biofuels-related research; four of the Presidents’ Commission Scholars have biofuels projects queued up for the summer.

CSUPERB recognized that 98% of the undergraduates we funded last year were third and fourth year undergraduates.  Lopatto* and others have collected data indicating that students make the “greatest intellectual gains” if they get involved in faculty-mentored research projects early in their academic careers.  So we opened the Presidents’ Commission Scholars program to 1st, 2nd and 3rd year undergraduates.  In the proposals faculty mentors described a variety of clever recruiting strategies, including 10 minute recruiting pitches at the beginning of introductory chemistry and biology lectures.  As a result we’ve funded two freshmen and 11 sophomore researchers this summer. Eight of the scholars have not set foot in a research laboratory or worked with a research team before.  We sincerely hope these summer projects open doors, hone interests, build teams and inspire all involved.


*Lopatto, David. 2009. Science in Solution: the Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning. Tucson, AZ: Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

Program Notes: Grant Programs and Strategic Plan

I’m back after a vacation and there is a backlog of program news to report out!

In mid-March CSUPERB student and faculty Travel Grant and Presidents’ Commission Scholar proposals were due.  The application rates for these three programs exceeded all expectations.*  We received 88 travel grant proposals (~30% higher number of applications compared to any previous round).  We received 67 Presidents’ Commission Scholar proposals from 18 campuses, doubling the typical application numbers and campus participation in the Howell Scholars program, for comparison.  I think these numbers suggest we’re addressing an unmet, system-wide need with this new summer research program.  The down-side to this news, of course, is that the success rates ( or, “win rates”) might be lower than hoped for** this spring because our budget won’t stretch that much further.  Our goal is to partner with companies and national labs to expand the number of summer research opportunities in 2013.

That last point leads to the news that CSU Chancellor Reed approved the 2012-2015 CSUPERB Strategic Plan!  A link to the plan (*pdf) is here; the executive summary in slide deck format (*pdf) is here.

This new strategic plan puts an increased emphasis on partnering with companies, research institutions and national labs (= the “life science industry”) to increase CSUPERB’s impact. Between 2009-2012 we worked on being “industry-responsive,” for instance, by developing new curriculum addressing workforce needs.  But we realize there is a greater need for student research opportunities than our biotechnology faculty labs can accommodate (the applications received for the Presidents’ Commission Scholars program are the “tip of the iceberg,” in my opinion). Going forward we would like to build on our industry relationships to form long-lasting partnerships to improve student learning and open new career opportunities.

The new plan also puts an increased emphasis on entrepreneurial education.  As part of the strategic planning process we surveyed the FCG, CSUPERB PIs and student award winners.  This survey, along with survey responses after previous CSU Biotechnology Symposia, revealed a desire among faculty and students to understand life science entrepreneurship better.  We aren’t aiming to start-up new companies, but we are aiming to build a more entrepreneurial culture across the CSU biotechnology community.  In simple terms this might be reflected in meaningful exchanges and partnerships between chemistry and biology faculty and students and their engineering and business*** colleagues. To get started we are expanding the I2P® Early-Stage Biotechnology Commercialization Challenge system-wide this year in hopes that interested faculty and students can get involved and learn about biotechnology commercialization.  While technology transfer and regional economic development are topics that higher education administrators and policy wonks think about,  CSUPERB’s new emphasis on entrepreneurial education is a result of increased faculty and student “grass roots” interest.

CSUPERB has crafted an ambitious agenda on limited resources and in the face of decreasing support for higher education in California.  It is clear the program’s leadership remains stubbornly optimistic, authentically student-centered and full of good will.  It seems certain to me that we will continue to do good for California and its students despite our challenges.


*Another outcome associated with these remarkable application rates:  we used almost every volunteer in our spring pool of potential reviewers, suggesting we need to expand our reviewer pool yet again in coming years!

**All CSUPERB grant programs have had 25-35% success rates the past three years. The The FCG recommends that success rates [ = (# awards made) / (# applications received)] remain similar across all programs.  Their recommendation and an analysis of success rates each year drives our yearly budgeting process.

***…and their clinical, math and computer science colleagues as well!

Program Notes: Major Grant Deadline & Presidents’ Commission Scholars RFP

CSUPERB grant proposals were due yesterday evening.  It is the yearly deadline for the “major” (> $15,000) CSU faculty grant programs: New Investigator, Research Development, Programmatic and Entrepreneurial Joint Venture.  Again this year we received more than 100 proposals across the four programs, meaning we expect ~25-35% success, or “win,” rates. It looks like we received proposals from 19 of the 23 CSU universities this year.  Good luck to all the faculty applicants!  Heads up to all the potential reviewers systemwide…the program office will be in touch soon!

After the virtual dust settled this morning, we issued our first Request for Proposals to the new Presidents’ Commission Scholars Program.  Thanks to financial support from the CSU Chancellor’s Office and inspiration from the CSUPERB Presidents’ Commission, we’d like to double the number of undergraduate CSU students we support to work on biotechnology-related research projects during the summer. CSUPERB pays many student researchers – undergrads and grads – as part of our major grants programs (see above). We support others during the academic year as part of the Howell-CSUPERB Scholars program. Based on our own research and others* nationwide, we know that undergraduate research experiences are a “high impact” practice.  Translating the higher education jargon, this means that students who are lucky enough to work as part of a laboratory-, clinic-, field- or community-based research team are more likely to persist in their STEM degree programs.**  We don’t like depending only on luck here at CSUPERB. We’d like to incentivize students by offering full-time summer research opportunities and incentivize faculty mentors with some funds to cover supply, equipment and travel expenses.  CSU students can work with faculty mentors on any CSU campus. This summer we are particularly interested in funding students who are early in their academic career, who are interested in biofuels and/or who have not yet had a full-time research experience.

Spread the word to CSU undergrads!  A long, long time ago in Virginia, someone looked past my GPA and pointed me to a paid summer research opportunity in my home town.  It changed my life (and my GPA) for the better.


* We collect data-rich papers articulating the need for high impact practices in STEM education for grant, article and letter-to-the-editor writers at the CSUPERB Faculty Resource page (scroll about halfway down the page).

**They are also more likely to get better grades in intermediate level courses, are much more likely to graduate, and are more likely to go to graduate school or find employment related to their degree or research project.  Research experiences correlate with success in graduate school and on the job, so admissions officers and life science industry employers look for research experience on applications and resumes!