Latino faculty members in the UI College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences will be mentoring the next generation of Latino scientists through a National Science Foundation grant recently awarded to Gustavo Caetano-Anollés, a professor of crop sciences; Sandra Rodriguez-Zas, a professor of animal sciences; Jesse Thompson, assistant dean of academic programs and coordinator for diversity programs; and Maria Villamil, a professor of crop sciences.
"We are fortunate to be selected as part of the Undergraduate Research and Mentoring program of NSF," said Caetano-Anollés, co-principal investigator. "Illinois has one of the fastest-growing Latino populations, and this population is highly underrepresented in science and research."
The $662,836 NSF grant will establish a UI program titled "New Biology Fellows" that will focus on mentoring Latino undergraduate students.
Villamil is one of many faculty members concerned about the number of Latino students in the college.
"With less than 50 percent of Latino students graduating from high school, rigorous college entrance requirements, financial challenges, a lack of role models and little to no exposure to biosciences, it's not surprising that few Latinos enter into science, technology, engineering and math fields at the UI," she said.
Students haven't been exposed to "new biology" or the integration of all of these areas into one multidisciplinary field. They see biology, math, physics, engineering and computer sciences as separate entities, said Rodriguez-Zas, co-principal investigator.
"A limited number of students possess the quantitative and informatics background, combined with a firm grounding in biology and agricultural sciences, necessary to make full use of the large datasets available to enhance agricultural sustainability and community wellness," Rodriguez-Zas said.
Four cohorts of "New Biology Fellows" will receive one-year research experiences in quantitative biology and informatics starting in the summer of 2011 and continuing through 2015. Each cohort consists of seven college sophomore and junior students who have completed at least one introductory biology and one introductory math course from a Hispanic-serving institution in Illinois, including Harry S. Truman College, Morton College, Northeastern Illinois University, Triton College, Waubonsee Community College, Wilbur Wright College and UI.
"We plan to create a permanent pipeline to help students in two-year programs move on to a four-year program and eventually pursue graduate degrees at the UI," Rodriguez-Zas said.
Students will receive $15,000 fellowships for their research and academic work for one year at the UI studying a topic of their choice. Topics include plant and animal bioinformatics, quantitative genetics and plant breeding, statistical genomics, architecture of complex traits, food nanotechnology, biological system modeling, and statistics for agriculture.
"We want to enhance the pool of multicultural and multidisciplinary scientists and professionals by offering experiential learning opportunities, as well as academic and career development activities," Villamil said.
The experience will include a 12-week, intensive, summer research immersion experience, a mentor-guided academic year of research, and an optional second summer internship experience.
"This could be life-changing," Villamil said. "Not only can this experience increase students' chances to find their dream job or be accepted into graduate college, but they also can learn the latest techniques and gain valuable academic and leadership skills from some of the leading scientists in the country."
An important component of the program includes guidance on how to deal with the expected barriers that would normally preclude students' consideration for advanced education, Thompson said.
"Latino students face many barriers, including the need to provide for their families financially, parents who lack understanding of the value of a college education, U.S. citizenship, and lack of knowledge of borrowing and financing options," Thompson said.
"The purpose of these NSF grants is to build a model that can be replicated by others," Thompson said. "All of the researchers who joined together at UI to create these opportunities have written a lot of science. But this program isn't as much about science as it is serving students as mentors and role models."
The fellowships are being offered by the UI departments of agricultural and biological engineering, agricultural and consumer economics, animal sciences, crop sciences, food science and human nutrition, and the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability.
Applications are due March 4. More information and a complete list of project collaborators is available online.