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RISE: Training Minorities in Environmental Science

Rather than spending a leisurely summer at the beach or a local pool, many undergraduates, particularly those interested in science, take advantage of one of the many summer research programs offered around the country. And sometimes, participation in such a program can change lives.

That's what happened to Leonette Cox in the summer of 2003 when she spent 10 weeks in Jonesboro, Arkansas, at the Research Internships in Science of the Environment (RISE) program at Arkansas State University (ASU). Cox, then a rising senior at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, modeled stream-water chemistry, learned about graduate school life, and, more importantly, came to understand the value of a diverse scientific workforce. "I entered my senior year with a renewed conviction that I was going to continue my studies and the research that I started," she says. Cox is finishing up requirements for a master’s degree in chemistry at ASU and is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program in environmental sciences.

Cox's story is just one example of the RISE program's success in inspiring traditionally underrepresented minority students--African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans--to pursue careers in environmental science. Since its inception in 2003, a total of 29 students have participated and all have benefited from the program; 17 participants have completed their bachelor’s degrees; eight are enrolled in master's and Ph.D. programs; and four recently received acceptances into Ph.D. programs.

Targeting Minority and Average Students

RISE program director and co-creator Robyn Hannigan says the program is needed to help many minorities overcome a major hurdle, something she calls "the impostor syndrome," a feeling that they are not smart and don’t belong. "Often our students have been told that they can't be a professional scientist," Hannigan explains. "They have never really seen people of color that are active, productive researchers in their chosen field." Hannigan, who is half Irish and half Native American, had to fight a similar battle.

RISE intern Kyle Schumann (second from left) and ASU students Shane Lyerly, Elizabeth Medlin, and Aaron Howard collect water samples at Little Red River in Heber Springs, Arkansas. The Greers Ferry Dam is in the background.

Even though RISE targets students of color, nonminorities may also apply; the program usually admits one or two nonminority students each summer. Students are encouraged to work in diverse groups, and this, says Hannigan, usually leads them to recognize the value of working with people from different personal and professional backgrounds.

The program prefers to take students who haven’t done research before and those who don’t have access to research opportunities in their schools (i.e., 2-year colleges).

Although most applicants have GPAs higher than 3.5, the program isn’t necessarily for top students in science. "RISE wants all students, especially the ones who think they can't do it or aren't sure [about a career in science]," says Hannigan. This even includes undergraduates with GPAs that are less than 3.0, but those students must have a GPA of at least 2.5 in their major.

Hannigan knows firsthand that undergraduates who don't have top scores in the classroom may have the makings of a scientist. While attending The College of New Jersey, Hannigan was not a star pupil in her science courses. She didn’t realize that she had talent for research until a college professor recognized her potential in science--despite her 2.5 GPA--and invited her to work in his lab. Her project on extraocular eye muscle regeneration in frogs was far from her current specialty, geochemistry, but the experience gave her confidence as a researcher and student. Today, Hannigan is an associate professor of geochemistry at ASU.

Edna Poku performs high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) in a lab at ASU.

An Eventful Summer

Funded by the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, RISE gives 10 undergraduates interested in environmental science a $4000 stipend, plus housing and expenses for travel to and from the university, where they benefit from a 10-week summer research experience. Students work on their own research projects under the guidance of ASU faculty mentors. In the process, they learn to take interdisciplinary approaches in their research, acquire lab and field research techniques, and are exposed to the collaborative environment of research labs.

The students also attend seminars on environmental policy issues, science careers, gender and minority issues, science ethics, research presentation skills, and applying to graduate school. They write research papers and present their research results orally and in poster format at ASU and at regional and national conferences. The support group, which is available during and sometimes after the program ends, is made up of minority guest speakers, faculty mentors, and graduate students.

Kate Vanderpuye collects litter beetles at ASU's Experimental Farm.

Although the program's focus is on professional development, students and mentors also engage in social activities--volleyball, baseball, powwows, bowling, trips to the zoo, fishing, and canoeing--that enhance the summer experience. The balance of work and play gives RISE a good formula for meeting its goals. "Our strengths are in the quality of research, individual attention to students, and the program aspects that work to develop a network of colleagues that these students can rely on throughout their careers," Hannigan explains.

Eric Duncan, a senior majoring in chemistry at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke, and a former RISE participant, agrees: "The moments that I shared with my fellow RISE students were so enjoyable because I was able to experience [being with] people from different backgrounds that shared the same interest as I did." Duncan has been accepted into the Ph.D. program in pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Accomplishing Its Mission

Several RISE students have continued their research with their RISE mentors after the summer program ended, and some of them will be submitting manuscripts for publication, according to Hannigan. Moreover, the program is gaining in popularity each year: The number of applicants has grown from about 35 in the program’s first year to 94 last year. The program's success has attracted more of ASU's faculty research mentors, nearly doubling their ranks from 10 to 19. NSF recently renewed RISE's funding for another 5 years, so the program is set to point more students toward science careers. "When they leave here, we've equipped them with skills and knowledge that will serve them for a lifetime," Hannigan says. "Empowering them is what RISE is really all about."

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Edna Francisco is a contributing writing for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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