OSU STEM Leaders provides support to underrepresented Oregon State undergraduates in STEM fields. Now extended for its sixth year, and organizers hope to find additional administrative and college support to make it an ongoing OSU program.

OSU STEM Leaders was originally created with funding from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant, and is aimed at retaining underrepresented students by providing them with a cohort-based orientation course, professional development workshops, peer mentoring with upper level STEM students who have participated in the program and faculty-mentored undergraduate research experiences.

In the last five years, OSU STEM Leaders has served more than 275 first-year and transfer students. They include first generation, rural, low income, ethnic and religious minorities along with others who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. All the students begin with STEM majors in either the College of Science, College of Engineering or College of Agricultural Sciences – the three colleges that were part of the original NSF grant.

Daniel López-Cevallos, Assistant Vice Provost for the Office of Undergraduate Education, works with STEM Leaders program coordinator Stephanie Ramos to support the program.

“Programs like this take effort and commitment, and it’s an important priority for the nation, for Oregon and for our institution to commit to supporting underrepresented students in STEM,” López-Cevallos said.

Ramos said members of the cohort have a high second-year retention rate (an average of 90 percent across cohorts). They also build and maintain stronger relationships with professionals across campus, and many continue working in research labs even after their paid first-year commitment runs out.

The opportunity for undergraduates to work in a lab is a huge deal, Ramos said, because it allows them to connect with faculty in ways that would be impossible in large undergraduate STEM courses where they could be one of 200+ students.

“It really increases their confidence and their sense of belonging,” in the STEM field, she added. “Plus, working with peer mentors also gives them a better ability to navigate university life, and STEM courses in particular.”

“There is a large gap we need to narrow in the support of underrepresented students in STEM,” López-Cevallos said. “Without programs like this, there are few ways to directly engage and connect students with faculty. This connection gives them a real sense of belonging and offers unique ways to interact with people in their field.”

Felipe Barreto, assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology with the College of Science, found out about the STEM Leaders program through Kevin Ahern, who served as principal investigator for STEM Leaders from 2014 to 2019.

Barreto said it’s extremely gratifying to participate in the growth of STEM undergraduates.

“They are highly motivated, and they’re very humble and grateful for the opportunity,” he said. “They don’t take it for granted. Because they start early in their undergraduate career, their research duties start simple, but get more involved over time.”

Barreto had the chance to work on many research projects in different labs during his own undergraduate years, and said those experiences strengthened his interest in pursuing a career in science.

Carolina Guillén is a bioengineering undergraduate at Oregon State. She was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, and now lives in Albany. The STEM Leaders coordinator reached out to Guillén before she started her freshman year to talk to her about the program, and she said she felt like it was meant to be.

“The program made a huge difference in my life ever since I joined,” Guillén said. “Having a class with my fellow STEM Leaders helped me create a family away from home. My friends became resources that I could go to when I felt stressed, when I needed advice, when I needed someone to talk to.”

The chance to work in a lab opened her eyes to opportunities she hadn’t known existed at OSU, Guillén said.

“It awoke my desire to keep learning and find in what other ways I could do what I love while continuing to help others with my work and research. It also taught me that asking for help was okay,” she said. “I worked with graduate and PhD students in my lab and once I got comfortable talking to them and learning to ask for help or showing my desire to learn, it made my lab experience so much better.”

For some students like Allan Michael Aguirre-Burk, a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major from Klamath Falls, the opportunity to participate in a real lab has been a game changer.

“The most valuable part of the entire experience has been learning how to conduct myself in such an environment and how extensive, as well as elaborate, the research process is with each individual project being conducted,” he said. “I have gained an even greater amount of respect and appreciation for the work going on to advance every respective discipline.”

Aguirre-Burk said he hopes the program can find continued funding from the university so that future underrepresented students can participate.

“It really is a great opportunity to develop not only as a future scientist, but also as a professional and individual looking towards a career in the STEM disciplines.”

Angelee Calder, who is majoring in agricultural science and hails from Baker City, got into the program after coming to Oregon State from community college.

“Being a first generation, non-traditional student, I did not have any support system to help

 me navigate the new opportunities available to me,” she said. “STEM Leaders provided me with that support system. STEM Leaders gave me the tools I needed to be successful as an undergraduate researcher and sent me down a pathway that I knew that I wanted, I just didn’t know how to achieve.”

Calder ended up working with Professor Gail Langellotto in the Garden Ecology Lab. She said the experience will translate into opportunities for both her professional and personal life.

“Their hard work and well-thought-out processes are a huge inspiration to me. Their research with pollinators is not only essential to the health of our native bees and beetles of Oregon, but also to improve the health of humans and the environment through building sustainable communities.”

Kelsey Stoerzinger began working with the STEM Leaders program last year, when she first arrived at Oregon State as an assistant professor in Chemical Engineering. As a sophomore, she began working in a lab and received mentorship from a graduate student. The experience helped guide her path to becoming an independent researcher.

“Undergraduate research can be a powerful way to learn the scientific process—a life-long skill useful in numerous career trajectories. It teaches you how to identify open questions/problems, create hypotheses, and develop ways to test them. It fosters both creative and critical thinking.”

Having undergraduates in the lab doesn’t just benefit the students, she said. The professors gain something from the experience.

“Students bring so much enthusiasm, passion for changing the world, and curiosity that it’s just infectious (in a good way). It’s fun to dig down and explain things starting with the basics. I learn things all the time too.”

For more information on the STEM Leaders Program, see: https://stemleaders.oregonstate.edu/

For faculty who want to open their labs to STEM Leaders students, contact Ramos at [email protected]

~ Theresa Hogue