Penn Hosts First Ivy Plus STEM Symposium

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | jdisanto@upenn.edu | 215-898-4820October 8, 2012

This weekend, Penn hosted the first Ivy Plus Symposium and workshops for diverse scholars, a national conference designed to encourage exceptional undergraduate students to pursue advanced training in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields. 

The 2012 Ivy Plus STEM Symposium for Diverse Scholars welcomed nearly 100 underrepresented undergraduates with outstanding academic records from schools across the United States to Penn’s campus.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia delivered welcoming remarks on Friday evening at the opening reception and dinner.  The dinner keynote speaker was Derrick Pitts, the senior scientist and chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute Science Museum.  Since 1978, Pitts has designed and presented many of the museum’s programs and exhibits.  As the planetarium director, he has written and produced many planetarium programs and was recently invited to the White House for the first White House Star Party.

During the course of the weekend, participants gained insight into interdisciplinary science and how overlapping research fields create innovative approaches to problem-solving.

Attendees met with faculty from the nation’s leading universities and heard about their research in emerging fields; attended seminars, personal meetings and panels with graduate admissions representatives; and learned more about pursing research degrees.  In addition, students presented their own work to faculty members in a research poster session. 

One first-place winner in the research poster session was Jesus Ayala Figueroa, a biology major from the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao.  His poster depicted his research into a protein’s important role in controlling how fast cells divide in ectodermal tissues.

“This was a culmination of all of the internships and conferences I attended,” he says. “And, this marks the beginning of my graduate school experience.”

He attended the symposium to get more information about the graduate schools – and was able to find top-notch graduate institutions in one place.

“I was familiar with what they offered, but this gave me the opportunity to talk face to face with admissions representatives and not only find out ‘inside information’ about each school but also get more of a feeling for each school,” Ayala Figueroa says. 

He plans to apply to Penn, Brown University, Vanderbilt University and New York University.

“This conference is great for underrepresented groups in the STEM fields,” Ayala Figueroa says. “As a Latino who wants to be a scientist, we often hear how this is something that’s out of our reach, how we can’t get there.  This event shows that schools are trying to reach out so that we can have a more diverse research environment.”

Ayala Figueroa also has a tie to Penn.  He completed a summer research internship with Meera Sundaram of the Biomedical Graduate Studies program here in 2011 with The Leadership Alliance.

Susan Ross, Penn’s associate dean for Biomedical Graduate Studies and poster judge, says that the students and their research impressed her.

“The students were all very committed to research careers and it showed in the outstanding poster presentations,” Ross says.  “All the students did a great job describing their projects and demonstrated a level of understanding that is more typical of senior graduate students.”

The symposium gave Ross and other faculty members an opportunity to interact with undergraduate students in an intimate setting. 

“The students that I met were all excited to be able to attend this conference, to present their research and to learn about future opportunities at the Ivy Plus institutions,” Ross says.  “This type of symposium is important for introducing a diverse group of students to institutions where they can fulfill their goals of pursuing research careers.”

Sheila Thomas is the assistant dean of diversity and minority affairs for the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and a professor at Harvard University.  As a part of the steering committee, she helped to plan and organize the first Ivy Plus STEM conference. She also served on the admissions panel and as a poster judge.

Thomas says that diversity equals excellence and it’s important to build relationships between institutions, admissions personnel, faculty and program directors in order to achieve diversity in the STEM fields.

The Ivy Plus STEM symposium is valuable for everyone.  The best and brightest students are exposed to new schools and faculty, but, just as importantly, faculty are exposed to students from many different schools.  This emphasizes that there is great talent everywhere, and it is an eye-opening experience for all of us,” Thomas says.  “Events like this show us that we should keep our minds open, so that we’re attracting outstanding students from all schools, and this is one way to do that.”

“This is an outgrowth," says Andrew Binns, Penn’s vice provost for education, “of the Penn president’s and provost’s Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence, to help train, mentor, and encourage the faculty of the future, especially in the STEM fields.  These are areas in which faculty members and graduate students are historically underrepresented.”

The event was opened to a select group of students participating in college-level STEM “pipeline” programs, which produce a growing stream of strong academic achievers from underrepresented groups, including African-Americans, Hispanics, first-generation college applicants, students from low-income households and women.

Martha Dua-Awereh will graduate from Brooklyn College in May 2013.  She’s a double major in biology and physics, but she’s also a Penn alum who graduated with a degree in philosophy in 2008.  Just a few months ago, she was on campus for the Summer Undergraduate Internship Program through Penn Biomedical Graduate Studies, which is how she found out about the symposium.

She wasn’t around many Ph.D.s or scientists growing up and didn’t feel as though she was needed.  What’s more disheartening is that she felt as though she didn’t belong in the sciences.  But, at the Ivy Plus STEM symposium this weekend, Dua-Awereh received a powerful message of encouragement: We need you. 

“It was encouraging to hear it from so many people that I bring something special to the table,” she says. 

At the conference, she met up with admissions representatives from the schools in which she plans to apply, including Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, the University of Chicago and Princeton University.

“I have a lot of knowledge now about the application process and the STEM fields.  And, now that I know that I’m needed in the sciences, I can help others also feel as though they are needed, too,” she adds.  “The knowledge that I have –- I have to share it with others.  By sharing that knowledge, I’m not only strengthening the STEM community, but I’m also contributing to the academic pool and bringing in others so that they can add to the pipeline, too.”

Dua-Awereh says to up-and-coming researchers, “If it’s something that you want to pursue, don’t feel discouraged about the roadblocks.  They’re there to build character and strength so that you can really be prepared for what you want to do in life.”

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