Feature Story

A Foundation for STEM Success

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, Ursinus’s Supporting Inclusive Excellence program has provided students with a strong sense of community—backed by six faculty members with their own unique expertise—as they become better scientists, researchers, and leaders.
Supporting Inclusive Excellence

The list includes graduate students, researchers, and medical professionals. They are Ursinus College alumni who work at places like biotech firms, the National Institutes of Health, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. It’s impressive, to say the least.

Since 2015, the Supporting Inclusive Excellence (SIE) program has provided opportunities for students to be better prepared to enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields upon graduation, pursue advanced degrees, and continue their research.

“In order to increase our STEM workforce nationwide, we have to give more students opportunities to reach their full potential,” said Kate Goddard, an associate professor of biology. Goddard is a co-principal investigator for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that has funded the SIE program at Ursinus for seven years. Last September, the NSF recommitted to the SIE program and awarded $989,000 to the college to support scholarships for high-achieving students with significant financial need who are majoring in biology, biochemistry and molecular biology, and neuroscience.

“[Organizations like the NSF] recognize that there are students who are not well prepared by their high schools, and they recognize that there are students who may have to work, may not have as much time to study, or may not have tutors or mentors,” Goddard said. “However, those students are academically talented, and it’s important to help them reach their potential.”

The original NSF grant, for $560,000, sponsored three cohorts of 20 students each. The first 10 SIE scholarship recipients graduated from Ursinus in May 2020, and each one of them is in graduate school or is currently working in a scientific field and looking to pursue graduate study. The new funding will support scholarships for two cohorts of 10 first-year students beginning this fall and in the fall of 2022.

It’s not insignificant that these students are part of a cohort. It might be more apropos to call them a family. Goddard said that mid-way through their first year—after a “J-Bridge” term sandwiched between their first and second semesters—the students report that they feel more immersed in the science departments and have more confidence in themselves as scientists.

“Throughout my four years at Ursinus, this scholarship program became so much more,” said Aliyah Stephens ’21, who is currently pursuing master of science and doctor of osteopathic medicine degrees at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York. “Thanks to dedicated professors like Dr. Favero, Dr. Goddard, Dr. Price, Dr. Round, and Dr. King, this program helped me build a strong science foundation through the winter break J-Bridge workshops, and professional development workshops throughout the year.”

In addition to Goddard, the SIE program is led by six Ursinus faculty—all women with diverse scientific backgrounds and research expertise, and three of whom are women of color: Carlita Favero, an associate professor of biology; Simara Price, an assistant professor of biology and assistant dean of the college; Jennifer King, an assistant professor of biology; Jennifer Round, an associate professor of biology and neuroscience; and Rebecca Lyczak, professor and chair of biology.

“I’m so proud of our department,” said Goddard, when reflecting on the significance of the program’s leadership.

“Seeing more faculty who are women and who are people of color is really compelling,” Favero said. “I know when I went to graduate school, I was told I had to choose between having a family and being a scientist. But the fact is that we all have families. You see our families.”

It communicated to the students that they don’t have to sacrifice one for the other, Favero said, whether it be a family or another non-academic pursuit.

“We ask in our four questions [of the Ursinus Quest core curriculum] what matters,” Favero said. “That matters. And we know that students of color and first-gen students are lacking in these fields, so it’s important for them to see that it can be tied back to their family and to be tied back to their communities. You don’t have to throw any of that away to be a scientist. You don’t have to fit the mold and be a carbon copy of whoever came before you. You can craft your own path.”

That certainly isn’t lost on the students, who often talk about the importance of building a strong foundation beyond the classroom.

“This program is not just focused on academic success, but also provides a family atmosphere and a home away from home,” Stephens said. “The support I received financially and physically from my advisers and fellow cohort recipients made my SIE scholar experience so valuable.”

As the program has evolved, so has Ursinus’s ability to build a STEM community to support students in the field, said Round.

“It’s a sense of belonging among these students that they may not have had otherwise,” Round said. “It’s about helping these students see themselves as STEM majors and it allows faculty to better support them and make them feel like they’re a part of something. That’s really what causes them to persist in the end and make it through their major, and then maybe go on to graduate school, med school, or pursue research. It’s really about building their confidence and their identity as scientists.”

Devon Carroll ’22, a student-athlete and SIE scholar, says that kind of connectivity allows students to work together to achieve success. Like their faculty mentors, they come from different backgrounds and have different academic interests. And like members of a sports team, they lean on each other to learn new skills. They even get to hear from alumni scientists from various industries about what it’s like to succeed in science.

“Science students always hear stories about how challenging the courses are but being a part of the SIE program and having those other students and professors on my team for support was very helpful and made me feel like I could succeed,” Carroll said. “Being a part of a sports team on campus, I spent a lot of my time with my team and other athletes. I loved that the SIE program connected me with students of all different backgrounds and extra-curricular interests. I met some people in my program that I really enjoyed spending time with and otherwise probably would not have met if it weren’t for SIE.”

Finley Doherty ’22, who like Doherty is entering their senior year, agrees. “Being a part of SIE has meant that I’ve been surrounded by peers who share my love for science and have become some of my closest friends,” Doherty said. “SIE continues to provide me with an abundance of support and opportunities to develop the technical skills and critical thinking skills necessary to be successful in research.”

Further cementing the bond is the fact that all SIE scholars are part of the same Common Intellectual Experience class, and each has a first-year advisor who is one of the co-PIs on the NSF grant. So, from the moment the students step on campus, they are fully immersed with each other, SIE, and the sciences.

“We have multiple mechanisms in place to capitalize on what Ursinus already does well to create a community among the students and get them to interact with different faculty in the sciences right away,” Lyczak said.

It has paid off. So far, 85 percent of students who have come through the SIE program have graduated and out of those students, each is either pursuing an advanced degree or research, or had entered the workforce.

“Ursinus faculty see things in students that the students don’t see in themselves; things they don’t realize they’re capable of,” Round said. “This program has planted those seeds and it’s led to a lot of successful outcomes.”

Aliyah Stephens '21

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