"They open new worlds to their students, and give them the encouragement they need to learn, discover, and innovate. That’s transforming those students’ futures, and our nation’s future, too.” The speaker was President Obama, and he was presenting the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring at the White House last spring. Among the recipients was San Jose State University (SJSU) Professor of Biological Sciences Julio Soto, MCB PhD ’94.
The national honor has been presented to just 14 individuals and one organization in the past two years. It acknowledges the critical role that mentoring plays in the success of students in the STEM fields — especially for underrepresented students.
Since joining SJSU in 1999, Soto has served as the principal investigator on two ground-breaking grants. With HHMI-SCRIBE, Soto and his colleagues transformed the core curriculum for biology majors. Through NSF-RUMBA, Soto coordinates summer research opportunities for underrepresented students.
Soto’s passion for mentoring has been cultivated through personal experience. Raised in Puerto Rico by a family and culture supportive of the sciences, he originally studied pre-med, but found that he preferred the creativity of biological research over treating patients. But when he came to the United States in 1984 to pursue his master’s and PhD degrees, he found very few Hispanics seeking four-year college degrees.
As a scientist, Soto directs research that explores molecules that can potentially attack cancer cells at different stages of development. As a mentor, he looks to find students’ talents and potential, and to maximize their opportunities. “I try to meet their families,” he explains. “If you can enlist the family’s support, that student is much more likely to succeed.” Now in its twelfth year, NSF-RUMBA has placed 84 students in summer programs and 40 percent of its students have gone on to graduate programs and even post-docs.
Soto credits his own success to his experience at Berkeley, where he benefited from the mentorship of Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology David Weisblat and a great student network. In fact, UC Berkeley was recently recognized for graduating more Latinos with PhDs than any other university in the country. “At SJSU, I’ve tried to provide the same standard of education I received at Berkeley — using the Socratic approach in lectures and teaching concepts in the context of solving problems,” he says. “When you go out into the world, your supervisor isn’t going to give you a multiple choice of tasks to do.” Soto is currently serving a one-year term as program director of the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation.
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