by Camille Mojica Rey
This spring, the first cohort of SF BUILD Scholars received letters of acceptance to top graduate programs across the country. Being accepted into graduate school is a milestone in the lives of these SFSU students and great news for SF BUILD faculty and staff at SFSU and UCSF who have been working to prepare these students for the next step in their biomedical science careers.
“We are really excited,” says Carmen Domingo, SFSU professor of biology and core co-leader of student training for SF BUILD. “It’s validating that the program that we set up is supporting their career goals. They are getting to the level where they are competitive and being admitted to the best programs.”
Juan Castillo, one of the recent graduates of the SF BUILD Scholars program, earned a degree in chemistry from SFSU in August 2016. Castillo spent the fall continuing the research he began during the program and applying to a number of graduate programs nationwide. He received multiple offers, including one from his first choice, UC Davis. Castillo credits SF BUILD with giving him the research opportunities and mentorship he needed to be a competitive candidate. “I want to go into academic research someday, improve health in communities and do that using analytical chemistry,” he says. “The program showed me how I can do that.”
SF BUILD not only prepares students like Castillo to conduct professional level research in the biomedical sciences, but it takes a unique approach to ensuring success in a field that lacks diversity. Students receive education about stereotype threat, a phenomenon that occurs when a person from an underrepresented group experiences concern over confirming a negative stereotype of that group. This can impact their performance in high-stake situations, such as in science and math courses, and possibly lead to an early exit from the career pipeline. Castillo and his fellow scholars will be heading to graduate school armed with knowledge of stereotype threat, as well as tools to combat it.
“We hope that what we have taught our scholars about stereotype threat will allow them to navigate their graduate programs where they are likely to feel very isolated,” Domingo says. SF BUILD Scholars will be able to understand those circumstances in a different way than those who haven’t had this training, she explains.
In addition to teaching about stereotype threat, SF BUILD also works to affirm the scholars’ desire to give back to their communities. Losing the feeling that what they do matters has been shown to be another reason students from underrepresented groups leave the path leading towards careers in science.
For his part, Castillo says he was inspired by the work he did under Leticia Márquez-Magaña, SF BUILD’s director, SFSU professor of biology, and the head of the Health Equity Research (HER) Lab. “I was introduced to this project measuring the stress hormone, cortisol, in human hair to document the effects of chronic stress on marginalized communities like my own,” Castillo says. He was born in San Francisco and raised in nearby San Rafael by a single mother. Although his older siblings had chosen to go to college, he had not done so at the time of his mother’s death, instead working in bicycle shops and in construction. It was his mother’s passing that inspired Castillo to attend SFSU.
Castillo had already been working in the lab of Peter Palmer, SFSU professor of chemistry, when he was accepted into the SF BUILD Scholars program. In the HER Lab, Castillo worked on optimizing methods for sample preparation and the measurement of cortisol using mass spectrometry. He continued working with Palmer as a co-mentor. “The time I spent with both of my research mentors was invaluable to me.”
Castillo is currently writing up his findings, which he presented at the national meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicano and Native American Scientists (SACNAS). Now, as an incoming graduate student studying analytical chemistry at UC Davis, he hopes to continue measuring and studying biological molecules and addressing research questions that will improve health in communities. “I want to be a super mentor and a role model to kids in minority communities and that was one thing that was missing when I was a child. I think I can make a difference in helping people to do that.”
It’s that kind of commitment that gives SF BUILD faculty the assurance that what they are doing will have a ripple effect throughout the biological sciences. “These students are like our ambassadors,” Domingo explains. Not only will their experiences influence the kinds of research projects they will do, but they will educate and inspire their peers, as well as their own future students to also apply basic science to the well-being of minority communities. “By increasing the diversity of the people that ask questions, we impact the scientific community.”