TU propelling STEM student success through millions in grant funding

By Megan Bradshaw on February 21, 2019

TU's national grants continue to help faculty open paths to STEM careers for all students

John Mbah and Michael Dabney
John Mbah (left) and Michael Dabney are students in the TU-REP and Bridges to Baccalaureate programs, respectively.

Towson University’s Jess & Mildred Fisher College of Science and Mathematics (FCSM) has worked continuously on opening science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education to students from all backgrounds.

The FCSM faculty’s efforts have been recognized nationally, most recently with grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), that provide more than $3M in STEM opportunities for TU students. Towson University was awarded the only HHMI grant in Maryland and one of just 57 across the nation.

In fall 2018, TU’s Bridges to Baccalaureate program received a fourth round of funding—an anticipated $1.4M over six years—from the NIH to continue the promotion of underrepresented minority students transitioning from community colleges to Towson University. The grant enables the faculty to foster a supportive environment in which students can acquire research and professional skills.

An alumna of the program, Theresa White is now in her second year in an immunology Ph.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh. She graduated from Baltimore City Community College (BCCC) in 2013 with a degree in biotechnology and from Towson University in 2016 with a degree in molecular biology, biochemistry and bioinformatics (MB3).

“The Bridges program was where I was first exposed to research,” says White. “It opened many career doors I did not know existed, and it is where I decided what I wanted to do with my love for science. 

“Because of the program, I had the opportunity to work in Dr. Michelle Snyder’s lab, and it was amazing. She was patient and just an outstanding teacher. Dr. Snyder helped me navigate a difficult transition to Towson from BCCC, and I still seek out her advice and mentorship.”

Baltimore City native and first-generation college student Michael Dabney is in his first year of the program. He is a student at BCCC and is looking to transfer to TU this year. 

A self-described “kid who ran the streets” of West Baltimore, Dabney is now participating in a research internship with TU professor and mentor Barry Margulies.

“When presenting my research, I am able to tell an audience in detail how the research was carried out because of what Dr. Margulies taught me and what he allowed me to teach myself,” says Dabney. “Dr. Margulies never stood over my shoulder. I felt like he genuinely believed I could succeed in the corporate science world. Him believing in me made me remove any doubts I had and believe in myself even more going forward.” 

De'Sha Johnson
De'Sha Johnson

De’Sha Johnson, ’20, in her second year of the Bridges program, transferred from BCCC to TU in the fall of 2018. She is majoring in biology with a concentration in cell and molecular biology. 

Johnson describes a lifelong love of science—watching science TV shows as a child, dissecting a fetal pig in high school and applying a pragmatic thought process to everyday life.

Under Snyder’s mentorship, she is studying whether certain strains of E. coli could be related to the development of Crohn’s disease.

“She is so great at helping me understand lab work and requirements,” Johnson notes. “Dr. Snyder sees my potential and trusts me to work independently.”

Johnson’s prior work in Kelly Elkins’ labs took her to Phoenix, to present at the Bio-Medical Research for Minority Students conference, where she was the only undergraduate. In June, Johnson will present her E. coli research at the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) conference in San Francisco. 

Johnson is also a member of the TU Research Enhancement Program (REP). 

“HHMI recognizes we have a diverse study body and provided the needed resources to help us support student success,” says Laura Gough, professor and chair of the biology department. 

The program began in 2017 with the goal of providing students with authentic research through course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) and to provide faculty with professional development to foster inclusive teaching practices. Gough and department colleague Matthew Hemm are the principal investigators for the grant.

Twenty-two students—the program’s first class—are enrolled in the Introduction to Research Methods. Gough plans to add 20–24 students per term and increase the course offerings in and out of the biology department. After the introductory class, students will participate in CURE classes and conduct independent research. 

A key part to the program is the level of support participants receive in and out of the classroom. 

“Preparation and scaffolding for their next steps are key for students to know what to do,” says Gough. “Peer interactions are critical—graduate students volunteer to talk to TU-REP students and undergraduate learning assistants in CURE courses serve as extra pairs of eyes and hands for professors.”

Another important source of student support is Trudy Atuobi, the program’s project coordinator. She is a bridge between students, faculty and staff, helping with logistics as well mentoring students and helping them seek out research opportunities.

“I can remember key mentors in my life that took me under their wings. I was lucky enough to have mentors who helped me along the way here at Towson University. I took this position because I wanted to do the same for other students,” she says. 

Alicia Lopez
Alicia Lopez

Molecular and cell biology major Alicia Lopez ’20—a first-generation college student who transferred from Chesapeake College—says the mentoring she’s received has been “amazing” and has opened her eyes to all the information she needs to know. She notes that before she even entered the program, Atuobi was reaching out to offer support and guidance.

Classmate John Mbah ’20 says the program and its faculty and staff have been valuable to him because he knows, with their help, he “won’t miss a step.”

Students are not the only ones receiving support in this program. TU-REP has a strong focus on faculty professional development. The Year 1 faculty cohort includes Jackie Doyle, Harald Beck, Vanessa Beauchamp and Chris Oufiero, and Gough. They are mentored by Hemm, Snyder and Brian Masters. 

Gough plans to increase use of inclusive teaching techniques and to work closely with Leah Cox and TU’s Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity as well as the Center for Student Diversity. She aims to work more with CSD and to partner with fellow awardees from Virginia Tech and Trinity Washington to bring in speakers and experts.

Students' video takes flight on Mental floss

A bug's life

As part of his CURE “The Organismal Form and Function Lab,” Chris Oufiero’s students have been filming insects in slow motion. One group’s video of an invasive stink bug was referenced in an article on Mental Floss.

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: TU Matters to Maryland and Diverse and Inclusive Campus.