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Undergraduate Mentoring Program Targets Hard-to-Find Students

AIBS Eye on Education

Cathy Lundmark

In its program announcement for Undergraduate Mentoring in Environmental Biology (UMEB), the National Science Foundation clearly spells out whom the program is meant to attract: "members of those racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in science, mathematics, and engineering: Native Americans (American Indians and Alaskan Natives), Blacks (African Americans), Native Pacific Islanders (Polynesians or Micronesians), and Hispanics (Latinos)."

"There is a recognized underrepresentation of certain groups in many fields of science. This is especially true in the area of field biology," says Sally O'Connor, UMEB program director from NSF's Division of Biological Infrastructure. "People of color have not traditionally looked at environmental biology as a career option. Field biology can offer many exciting possibilities, and students need to know they can make a very rewarding life doing this kind of science."

"The UMEB program, active since 1999, hasn't hit its goal," O'Connor admits. "We are looking for creative ways to attract students who normally would not consider this field."

"We didn't know how to get students involved at first," says Michael Hadfield, lead investigator of a unique UMEB program for Pacific Islanders and director of Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii-Manoa. "We put up posters and waited, but they didn't flock to us. We needed to go to them." The first year, just four students joined the Pacific Island program for the summer internship. A young woman from Yap, an island in the Federated States of Micronesia, chose to work with Hadfield in Hawaii; the other three went to the University of Guam to work with coral reef biologist Robert Richmond. The following academic year, Richmond, Hadfield, and then coinvestigator Rosemary Gillespie, now at the University of California-Berkeley, traveled to Guam, Pohnpei, and Palau to give presentations.

"We met with faculty at the schools there as well as scientists working for the government and NGOs. That turned the tide," Hadfield says, "and our first large cohort got going. Those students generated more interest in the program after that."

In its first four years, 29 students participated in the program. They are from territories conferring the rights of US citizenship: Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Most of them come from places with their own languages or dialects; they don't speak English on a regular basis. When they come to Honolulu, it is often for the first time. "It's the classic situation of a country kid seeing the city for the first time," Hadfield says. "They lose track of where they're walking because they can't stop looking up."

Although attuned to their natural surroundings, students initially have a minimal background in biology. Many participate for only one summer, but eight have worked for two or more summers. They enter the program at one of several institutions: the University of Guam, the University of Hawaii-Manoa, the University of Hawaii-Hilo, and the University of California-Berkeley. Program leaders found that students work better as part of a cohort, so Berkeley will no longer be part of the program.

Students who come to UH-Manoa spend the first 3 weeks of the 10-week summer session doing rotations with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in Hadfield's marine lab, looking at marine invertebrate life histories and ecology, and at his inland study site, studying endangered tree snails. Vanessa Fread, the student from Yap, has finished her third year of internship and is now working on her bachelor's degree at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia. Her studies on the ecology of an invasive barnacle, which came to Hawaii from the Caribbean, will be published within a year.

Students who come to UMEB are familiar with environmental problems. They have seen the effect of bleaching on coral reefs in Palau and know firsthand the impact that dead corals have on fisheries and tourism. One UMEB intern from the Marshall Islands, Melba White, is now a spokesperson for coral reef preservation.

"Great people work in natural resources," Hadfield says, "and having an undergraduate or master's degree from University of Guam guarantees students a position. We want to train people to do this work."

"We want [students] to know they can make a difference in how we manage our environment," says O'Connor. "We need scientists who come from all perspectives and backgrounds. Problems dealing with the environment are complex, and we need all members of our society to help solve them.

"The UMEB program has changed—we needed to refocus on our goal. People need to know that the previous restriction that an institution must have three current grants [to apply for UMEB] has been removed for the first time this year. It has opened up the field to more schools and is better targeting the intended audience.... We are excited because we are better able to reach the target group than ever before."

Cathy Lundmark (e-mail: ) is features editor for BioScience.

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