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President Obama To Honor Science Mentors

by Linda Raber
July 27, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 30

Four of the 22 individuals and institutions selected for this year's Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics & Engineering Mentoring are being honored for developing programs that aid students pursuing degrees in chemistry and the related sciences. The awards will be presented by President Barack Obama at the White House this fall. The awards call national attention to the importance of mentoring in the academic and personal development of students from underrepresented minorities who are pursuing science or engineering degrees. Winners were selected from nominations submitted by colleagues, administrators, and students. Each winner receives $10,000 to advance his or her efforts.

For 20 years, San Francisco State University biology professor Frank T. Bayliss Jr. has run the Student Enrichment Opportunties (SEO) Program. Each participant in this year-round program of laboratory research is matched with a supportive faculty research preceptor. Bayliss has established SEO as an interlocking system of talent development and support that spans the freshman-to-Ph.D. student continuum, with deliberate emphasis on important transitions: high school to freshman, community college to university, B.S. to M.S., and B.S. or M.S. to Ph.D. It has resulted in significantly higher retention and academic achievement of underrepresented students in biology, chemistry, and biochemistry.

Jerzy R. Leszczynski, chemistry professor at Jackson State University, in Mississippi, has developed mentoring techniques that have resulted in significant increases in the numbers of African American and female students trained in computational chemistry. He works with peer-to-peer learning teams, each of which contains a senior researcher as project leader and trainees at different educational levels. Each team member mentors a student at a more junior level, teaching them basic concepts and research strategies. For his part, Leszczynski actively mentors younger faculty. The program has steadily grown in size and recognition. As a result, Jackson State has for the past eight years had a Ph.D. program in chemistry. Fifty students, half of whom are African American, are enrolled.

University of South Florida assistant professor Ashanti J. Pyrtle devotes substantial effort to mentoring students in marine and geosciences, fields that suffer from an extreme shortage of minority professionals. Her research focuses on radiogeochemistry of marine, estuarine, and freshwater environments. Her strategies for increasing minority participation in the field include coaching and mentoring coupled with professional development opportunities. Pyrtle is also the author of a unique program that focuses on creating a community of scientists and that assists in professional development by enlisting support from peers, senior mentors, and professional organizations.

Stanford University chemistry professor Richard N. Zare has been instrumental in revealing and removing gender inequities in chemistry departments on a national basis by starting with his own department. Resisting skepticism, Zare developed a questionnaire distributed to all graduate students and postdoctoral research associates in the Stanford chemistry department. The questionnaire raised leading questions about gender discrimination, and responses led to heightened sensitivity regarding gender equity and promoted a more family-friendly department that truly encourages the commitment by students and faculty to make chemistry a lifetime career path.

Linda Raber compiles this section. Announcements of awards may be sent to



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