Student research, retention thrive with team mentoring

By Steve Nakata, Student Affairs

PULLMAN, Wash. – While their friends spent the summer waiting tables or stocking store shelves, three Washington State University seniors donned white lab coats and helped advance research in reproductive biology.

The students are participants in WSU’s award-winning Team Mentoring Program (TMP). Through a combination of workshops, social events, panel discussions and research opportunities, TMP provides personalized support to minority students majoring in STEM and health disciplines as a way to boost retention and graduation rates.

Since the program was established in 2007, the WSU Office of Multicultural Student Services (MSS) reports TMP has helped 925 undergraduates with the aid of 125 student mentors and 30 faculty mentors.

From 2007-14, 76 percent of student participants have or are on-track to graduate, compared to 68 percent of those not active in the program, said J. Manuel Acevedo, MSS director. When looking at just engineering students, 69 percent of active students have or are projected to graduate, compared to 55 percent of those who haven’t participated in TMP.

Last year, TMP was a finalist for the national University Economic Development Association’s Award of Excellence. In the same year, TMP faculty mentors received WSU’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award.

Discovering a passion for research

On a recent morning, students Marleny Garcia, Jacob Lizarraga and Karena De La Rosa scurried around the lab directed by WSU molecular biosciences professor Joy Winuthayanon. Each student was conducting separate experiments, but all were trying to resolve problems related to female reproduction.

De La Rosa wanted to try research, but didn’t know how until her TMP student mentor connected her.

“The research I’m doing makes me feel really good because I know many people can’t have children and we’re working towards solutions for them,” said De La Rosa, who aspires to become a researcher for a pharmaceutical company. “I feel like we’re making really good progress.”

Microbiology major Lazarraga described himself as going through the motions prior to becoming involved in research through TMP.

“Before, I didn’t see how my biology and chemistry classes applied to the real world,” he said. “Now I can see that connection and it has sparked a passion that has driven me to do well in school.”

Coming from the small town of Mattawa, Wash., where 90 percent of the population speaks Spanish, Garcia could have been destined to work in the surrounding orchards and vineyards. But this first-generation student aspires to be a doctor and came to WSU to enroll in the pre-medicine program.

“A big thing that can help you succeed in college is surrounding yourself with others who are successful,” Garcia said. “TMP is a great at connecting you with successful people.”

Faculty get support as role models

As TMP faculty mentors, Winuthayanon and Shaui Li, a postdoctoral fellow in Joy’s lab, teach the students about research – including what questions to ask, what equipment to use and how to know if their experiments are successful.

“Joy has been such a good role model for me and is so good at what she does,” said Garcia. “When she explains things to me, she makes sure I understand it completely so that I’m actually learning.”

Winuthayanon admitted that taking on undergraduate students in the lab is time-intensive, especially at the beginning, but said the reward at the end is well worth waiting for.

“The students learn what it takes to work in a research lab and if conducting research is something they like to do,” she said. “I also benefit by gaining experience in training students and by all the great work they contribute to the research we are doing in the lab.”

She appreciates her school’s support for junior faculty by encouraging them to mentor undergraduate students.

“When you see how dedicated these students are, you quickly realize this isn’t about you,” Li said. “It’s about wanting to help them flourish.”

TMP research scholarships are supported by Boeing, AT&T and the WSU Colleges of Engineering and Architecture, Arts and Sciences, Veterinary Medicine, and Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.