November 22, 2016 Issue
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Providing role models for aspiring scientists, COADSS promotes STEM careers to diverse scholars

Providing role models for aspiring scientists, COADSS promotes STEM careers to diverse scholars

Beatrice Guillermo (left) with other students involved in COADSS.

Growing up in Montrose, Colorado, recent CU Denver graduate Beatrice Guillermo did not have the opportunity to meet Hispanic women who had fulfilled her dream of going to medical school. Her family and upbringing had given her many keys to success (including bilingual fluency in Spanish and English) but she hadn't seen the path to success traversed by many people who shared her background. That's why she helped launch the Colorado Organization for the Advancement of Diverse Scholars in Science (COADSS) program this year.

"I had a hard time transitioning my freshman year and I can't help but think that I may have fared better had I had a role model that was living proof that someone like myself could actually succeed in (what I had previously thought) such a crazy endeavor," Guillermo said. "I wanted to help create COADSS because I knew that many students, myself included, may have a difficult time pursuing degrees in STEM fields."

The first priority of the COADSS program was to launch a seminar series bringing scholars from diverse, under-represented backgrounds in STEM fields to CU Denver; giving students a chance to meet them and get to know their stories. Marcia Levitus, Associate Professor of Chemistry at Arizona State University, was the inaugural speaker in the series, on September 9, 2016. Levitus, a native of Argentina, is just the type of role model Guillermo said she was looking for.

Funding for COADSS came early in 2016 when Marino Resendiz, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, was awarded a CU Diversity and Excellence grant. The initial $3,000 grant will allow COADSS to bring three diverse speakers from top national research universities to CU Denver this academic year. "Hopefully, this will give students perspectives on other's pathways, and an idea of the opportunities available in STEM, particularly in research," Resendiz said. "A lot of students don't know that they can do research from an early stage, even as undergraduates."

In his earlier schooling, in high school in Utah, Resendiz saw many classmates struggle due to a lack of guidance. "I just see now the value of role models, how they would have helped some of my classmates who had no sense of direction of where to go career-wise," he said.

Resendiz knows firsthand the value of academic mentors. The idea of becoming a researcher was planted when, as an undergraduate at the University of Utah, he participated in a research project. The world of academia opened up even wider for Resendiz—a student who worked multiple jobs to pay his way through school—when he learned that graduate students get paid to perform research. "It was kind of accidental how I ended up in chemistry—it just happened."

Guillermo's experiences at CU Denver were similar, she remembers, "It can be very discouraging when you have to take a ton of difficult classes ALL the time and you keep struggling but still push yourself to move forward. Sometimes that push can be harder and harder to do on your own."

In spite of her difficulties, Guillermo graduated from CU Denver this past May with college honors, a BS in Biology, and minors in both Biophysics and Health Humanities. She said helping to create COADSS was one of the many accomplishments she will put on future medical school applications. "Mainly, this experience will serve as a reminder that I am capable of accomplishing my goals and dreams since I know that it isn't impossible since others like me have done it before."

Guillermo plans to pursue a master's degree before applying to medical school and achieving her self-described dream, "to become a caring, compassionate, and a proficient physician." She knows first-hand, "STEM can be an extremely challenging field and it may not be as diverse as it could be."

As part of his outreach efforts to make STEM accessible to everyone, Resendiz visits Denver area high schools and community colleges informing students, especially those from underrepresented populations, about the STEM opportunities at CU Denver. He hopes to extend COADSS funding in the future, to include more potential CU Denver students, as well as bringing alumni who work in STEM fields into the fold as mentors.

The reaction from students on the Auraria Campus to the debut seminar (as well as participation last month from Professor Josep Rizo-Rey, Chair of the Molecular Biophysics Program at University of Texas Southwestern) has given Resendiz motivation to seek further funding and continue the seminar series past the current academic year. He hopes to make the activities of COADSS self-sustaining, so that it can grow in future years.

"The main thing is to make going to college a successful experience for students—for whatever area of study they like," Resendiz said.

Guillermo agrees, "It is vital to show all students, from all backgrounds, that their aspirations can come true." As a proud CU Denver alum, she plans to continue the quest she began here, "I am committed to diversifying STEM fields by encouraging all students to persevere and excel in their fields of study."

Participation in COADSS events is open to everyone. For more information on events or how to become a COADSS mentor if you work in a STEM career, email Assistant Professor Alejandro Bugarin, from University of Texas Arlington, will be coming to campus in the spring on a date TBD.

Adapted from a piece written by Chris Casey for University Communications in September 2016.

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