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Venezuela native Alejandra Mendoza credits the University of Miami's bridge program for pointing her toward a Ph.D. program in developmental genetics.
Dosumu-Johnson was considering taking a job as an emergency medical technician the summer before he transferred from Orange Coast to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), when he received an invitation to apply for the NIH-funded bridge program at UC Irvine. If accepted to Irvine's program, he would receive a stipend, neutralizing the money issue. Curious to learn more about research, he applied, landed a spot in the program, and found a laboratory at Irvine to host him.
Dosumu-Johnson says that hands-on experience sparked his interest in research as a career. In the lab, he was encouraged to troubleshoot problems that arose during experiments instead of just doing what he was instructed in “cookbook”-style experiments with predetermined results.
“It was an amazing experience on multiple levels,” he says. He presented his summer research project in San Francisco at a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He'd never been to the Bay Area or to a scientific meeting bustling with people who thrived on research. Despite his inexperience in the conference environment, the chance to network led him to meet the UCLA professor who became his mentor when he later transferred to the four-year school.
Gill-Shaw at Eastfield College agrees that research experience is a big plus. She received an NSF grant to increase the number of students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (called STEM fields). The program places students in research settings at the Big Thicket National Preserve in Saratoga, Texas, and at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. The results have been promising. During the three academic years before the program was implemented, Eastfield's STEM enrollment hovered at about 2,100 students. After the program's kickoff, enrollment jumped to 2,401. In 2007–08, the number of STEM students topped 3,500.
Intensive peer and administrative support make a difference as well, according to bridge program students and program directors.
Students who participate in peer groups develop strong bonds and help each other meet the demands of the rigorous curricula. The peer group can relieve the family and life pressures that weigh on the students.
Former bridge scholar Alejandra Mendoza says she became very close to her support group of Miami–Dade College students, all enrolled in the University of Miami program.
“We really did become a family,” she says.
Advice from faculty, staff, and administrators can be just as potent. When the program novelty has worn off, doubts bubble to the surface, says Paul E. Hertz, professor of biological sciences at Barnard College and head of a bridge program that partners with LaGuardia Community College. Barnard's summer program, which has been fully funded by HHMI since 1992, brings LaGuardia students to live on campus. Every year about a week into the session, they start telling themselves they don't belong there, he says.
“We usually work through the issues,” he says, adding that more than 70 percent of the scholars who go through Barnard's program transfer to four-year institutions including Barnard and Columbia University. Most pursue science or science-related degrees, says Hertz.
Photo: Chris Jones