STEM Diversity Programs Put Undergrads on Path for Research Success

Madison Kennedy is one of six San Diego State University students this year to win a highly prized National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship to help fund her doctoral studies at the University of Washington.

As an SDSU undergraduate, she worked in professor Christal Sohl’s chemistry research lab; studied alongside a diverse group of peers; and learned from guest lectures by underrepresented scientists who attended SDSU as undergraduates before going on to succeed in highly competitive graduate programs.

Gradually, Kennedy came to see a future in research as a real possibility.

“It’s encouraging to see all these students who come from underrepresented backgrounds achieving so much,” said Kennedy, a chemistry major who, as an undergraduate, researched a protein that holds promise for targeted drug therapy. “We’re constantly seeing proof that we do have value in the science field and we can achieve all of these amazing things. It’s really motivating.”

Kennedy is one of six SDSU students this year to win a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship to help fund her doctoral studies. Three of those recipients, including Kennedy, participated in SDSU’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, which supports students from underrepresented groups as they pursue STEM Ph.D.s and research careers.

SDSU’s MARC program and the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), a similar initiative, have supported and funded diversity in undergraduate STEM fields at SDSU for decades. In fact, two-thirds of the NSF fellowships awarded to SDSU students in the past five years went to students in these two programs.

Participants must be low-income, from an underrepresented minority population, first-generation college students, veterans, underrepresented in their field (such as females in engineering) or have a disability to participate in the programs, which are both funded by the National Institutes of Health.

MARC has supported 133 students in its 28-year history at SDSU, and 90 of them ultimately received fellowships to help fund their graduate education. Student participants have written or contributed to more than 60 published academic papers.

Most notably, in the last four years, every graduating senior involved in MARC matriculated into doctoral programs, and roughly 90 percent of IMSD students have been accepted to graduate school.

MARC is designed for juniors and seniors and accepts five high-achieving students per graduating class. Participants receive tuition scholarships, and stipends for research activities, supplies, travel, and housing. Meanwhile, IMSD accepts about 25 sophomores, juniors or seniors each year and participants receive hourly wages for their research time.

MARC and IMSD students are required to participate in a research lab, present their work at SDSU’s annual Student Research Symposium, attend research-related conferences in their field, and apply to graduate school. They also attend workshops on succeeding as a minority in STEM fields, take courses on ethics and scientific writing and are encouraged to study together on campus.

Both programs have a community feel to them, said Thelma Chavez, the MARC’s coordinator.

“We try to make the students feel like they can do this, and they lean on each other and lean on us,” she said. “It’s like a family for them.”

Elena Arroyo, a graduating physics major who is a MARC participant and NSF fellowship recipient, said the classes and workshops are “empowering” and a tremendous help in the lengthy and difficult process of applying for the NSF Fellowship.

“It really prepared me mentally to achieve my goals,” said Arroyo, whose research as an undergraduate examined phages, the viruses that attack bacteria.

“Applying to the NSF is overwhelming—the whole process through, from the time you start it to the time you submit it, and even when you’re waiting to hear back,” she said. “But I was definitely prepared for the process, and going through it with the other MARC students really helped.”

Posted on May 17, 2018 by Kellie Woodhouse (


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