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University of Illinois awarded National Science Foundation grant to mentor Latino students

Latino faculty at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) are taking the lead to mentor the next generation of Latino scientists through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant recently awarded to Gustavo Caetano-Anolls, Sandra Rodriguez Zas, Maria Villamil, and Jesse Thompson.

"We are fortunate to be selected as part of the Undergraduate Research and Mentoring program of NSF. Illinois has one of the fastest-growing Latino populations, and this population is highly underrepresented in science and research," said Gustavo Caetano-Anolls, co-principal investigator and professor in the Department of Crop Sciences.

The $662,836 NSF grant award will be used to establish a U of I program focused on mentoring Latino undergraduate students titled "New Biology Fellows."

Villamil, an assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences, is one of many faculty who are concerned about the number of Latino students in the College of ACES.

"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 U of I," 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 Sandra Rodriguez Zas, co-principal investigator and professor in the Department of Animal Sciences.

"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 that have completed at least one introductory biology and one introductory math course from a Hispanic-serving institution in Illinois, including Northeastern Illinois University, Morton College, Triton College, Harry S Truman College, Waubonsee Community College, Wilbur Wright College and U of I.

"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 U of I," Rodriguez Zas said.

To facilitate this process, students will receive $15,000 fellowships for their research and academic work for one year at the U of I 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 a student's chances to find their dream job or be accepted into graduate college, but they can also learn the latest techniques and gain valuable academic and leadership skills from some of the leading scientists in the country."

An important component of this program includes guidance on how to deal with the expected barriers that would normally preclude their considerations for advanced education, said Jesse Thompson, assistant dean of academic programs and coordinator for diversity programs.

"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.

Thompson believes the most powerful piece of this program are the Latino role models leading the efforts to increase opportunities for Latino students.

"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 U of I 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."

Villamil said Thompson's involvement has allowed their group to promise results because of the infrastructure already in place.

Rodriguez Zas said she expects the New Biology Fellows will become role models for younger students and agricultural ambassadors who can reach out to the Latino community.

The fellowships are being offered by the U of I 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, 2011. For more information and a complete list of project collaborators, go to


Contact: Jennifer Shike
University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

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