Fall 2018 NSF REU Program

Promoting Diversity in the Biosciences: MCB partners with NSF REU Program
By Michael Barnes

As a senior MCB professor, Gian Garriga has reached a point in his career where he has the ability to give back to the scientific community. He has chosen to be part of the MCB tradition of supporting the campus’s National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. For 10 weeks every summer, the REU program brings 12 science students from underrepresented groups and regions to the Berkeley campus to conduct laboratory research.

Gian Garriga

Says Garriga, “When I look at the scientific community it doesn’t look like the population at large. I’m grateful for the privileges I’ve had as a scientist, and I want to help bright, curious students from underrepresented backgrounds enjoy some of those same opportunities.”

The REU grant cycle lasts four years and pays the expenses for the 12 students to live on campus from June to August each year. More than 400 students from all over the country apply for the chance to get experience doing scientific research at Berkeley. Professors serve on the grant for eight years; first being recruited as a PI (Principal Investigator) for four years and then inheriting the co-PI duties for the next four-year cycle.

Garriga has been preceded in recent years by MCB’s David Weisblat and IB’s Tyrone Hayes and will hand off responsibility to PMB’s Kathleen Ryan. Says Garriga, “The program has a staff coordinator, David Philoxene, and an education grad student, who is absolutely critical for the program. Two grad students, MCB’s Christopher Duncan-Lewis, and PMB’s Nanticha Lutt, served as Graduate Assistants (GAs) to the REU students.”

By the time the students arrive, they have been paired with a professor and research group recruited by Garriga and Ryan. In addition to obtaining research experience in the labs, REU students attend professional development workshops on Monday mornings. On Tuesday evenings the sponsoring PIs discuss their research and personal journey through the scientific world, and on Thursday evenings the REU students meet with the GAs to work on their writing and presentation skills. Weekends include trips to the Monterey Aquarium, the Golden Gate Bridge and other attractions unique to the bay area.

Group photo of summer 2018 NSF REU students.
MCB's NSF REU summer 2018 students take a break from lab for a group photo.

Staff coordinator David Philoxene adds that, “Many of these students have been isolated by cultural, income or geographical barriers. This may be the first time in their lives they have been surrounded by a community that shares their passion for science and learning. By the end of the 10-week session, the words I hear often are ‘grateful’ and ‘thankful.’”

NSF tracks the outcome of the program and REU alums typically do enter Ph.D. or other science programs. Even more revealing are the comments of the students themselves. “Best summer of my life,” was a comment from more than one student. “I don’t want to leave and I’m not going home the same person,” was another.

Grad student mentor Christopher Duncan-Lewis reflected that, “It was amazing to see how much this year’s cohort progressed in 10 weeks. Many of the students were unsure of their scientific knowledge and ability at the start of the program, but they quickly overcame any reservations and gave stellar, graduate-level research talks during the final symposium. The professional development workshops held throughout the summer also informed the students about graduate programs and many of them were emboldened to apply to graduate school as a result.”

Learn more about MCB's NSF REU program here.