Underrepresented STEM student mentorship grant renewed

The Career Mentoring of Underrepresented STEM Students for the Professoriate (CUSP) program at the UC Riverside College of Natural & Agricultural Sciences (CNAS) received a $350,000 renewal grant for the next five years.

Francey Sladek, principal investigator and professor of cell biology, made the announcement at the CUSP 2023 orientation lunch on March 22.

Launched in September 2020 with a $50,000 grant from the University of California-Hispanic Serving Institutions Doctoral Diversity Initiative (HC-HSI DDI), CUSP provides mentoring and career development to UC Riverside graduate students from groups typically underrepresented in STEM.

“It’s for students who want to become professors, to give them mentoring to help them do that,” stated Sladek.

The renewed program will work to increase recruitment and retention of STEM students in academia and foster a culture of mentorship to promote inclusivity. It will also build a multi-campus community between participants at the University of California and California State University institutions.

CUSP scholars receive one-on-one career development mentoring from a UC Riverside faculty member outside of their field of study. Scholars also participate in professional development workshops and receive support in developing an individual development plan (IDP).

The IDP process in particular was a huge hit among CUSP alumni, according to Loralee Larios, co-principal investigator and assistant professor of plant ecology.

“They really valued going through an IDP and thinking about what their career options are, and what they value,” said Larios. “Having designated time to do that was really, really helpful for them!”

Scholars also receive a $500 travel award to present research and network with peers at scientific conferences, including the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). In addition, CUSP provides ample opportunities for scholars to connect with other Ph.D. candidates and join the growing network of scholars and mentors.

“It’s really to familiarize people with what graduate school is,” explained Sladek. “That whole process of how you apply for an assistant professorship, how the interview process works…the ‘chalk talk,’ for example. It’s to let people know about it and to demystify it, so they know what to anticipate.” 

The program began with three scholars and three associates in 2021 before growing to five scholars and two associates the following year. CUSP alumni report increased confidence in developing effective relationships with mentors and seeking out constructive feedback, plus gaining knowledge about how to succeed in tenure-track faculty positions.

The 2023 cohort will also feature five scholars, including Ayat Riahi, a Ph.D. student in plant biology, who will be mentored by Hollis Woodard, associate professor of entomology.

“I’m interested in teaching, so I hope I can improve my ability in this way,” said Riahi, “I really look forward to getting the benefit of [Woodard’s] experience.”

“I’m excited about getting more training in effective mentorship,” added Woodard. “These types of programs are important for standardizing the level of quality when it comes to mentoring.”

CUSP’s focus on professional development is especially beneficial, according to Clarissa Rodriguez, a Ph.D. student in plant biology and a 2021 CUSP alumna.

“In graduate school, we receive specialized training on the technical side, but professional development is not emphasized,” wrote Rodriguez via email. As such, “The [CUSP] workshops were very valuable.”

Mentorship lies at the heart of CUSP, according to Peter Homyak, assistant professor of ecosystem & soil microbial processes and a CUSP mentor since the original 2021 cohort.

“The goal is to provide resources to students that are going through similar processes that we went through a while back,” said Homyak. “Maybe we saw ourselves needing support, and maybe not finding it. The program provides support to encourage [CUSP scholars] to fulfill their academic dreams.”

Rodriguez, one of Homyak’s mentees, credited Homyak with providing mentorship beyond her academic field.

“He provided great advice on work-life balance, science writing, and applying for jobs,” remembered Rodriguez. “He also helped me grow my network by connecting me with professionals. One of those connections led to my current adjunct faculty position at Riverside City College, for which I am really grateful!”

Placing scholars with mentors outside of their academic departments leads to more open, aspirational conversations, according to Larios. 

“That gives them an opportunity to have very targeted conversations about their careers and aspirations that may not necessarily naturally happen with their principal investigators,” explained Larios, “because those conversations tend to be more research-focused. It’s a good opportunity to have these outside perspectives that are important for their career development.”

“Being paired with a faculty member outside of our immediate graduate program offered a different perspective,” confirmed Rodriguez.

Prospective CUSP scholars apply for the program in January, and begin their mentoring and research activities during the spring quarter. Summers are spent preparing for conference presentations, which generally take place in the fall.

Rodriguez stated that CUSP mentor/mentee relationships continue even after the program officially ends.

“My mentor and I still keep in touch,” shared Rodriguez. “He helped me with my applications and wrote letters of recommendation for me.”

For Sladek, giving back is also at the heart of CUSP’s mission. 

“We’re helping other people, we’re creating something new…trying to make a difference,” said Sladek.

How do CUSP scholars get the most out of the program? According to Homyak, it’s about having a passion for their academic fields.

“Just a love and a passion for what they’re doing,” said Homyak. “Our job is to provide the support they need to continue.”


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