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A Posse on the Loose
By Trisha Gura
The ten students who entered Brandeis University four years ago as an innovative experiment in science education are graduating.
Click on the Posse members to hear their thoughts on the program and to learn what they are up to next.
Ten extraordinary New Yorkers who were given a chance will clasp their diplomas, flip their tassels, and make history on May 20, 2012, at the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center at Brandeis University outside Boston. The students are the science posse, a collection of urban-schooled, best in class who entered Brandeis four years ago as an innovative experiment in science education.
Would it be possible to group some really sharp, overlooked students and, with a combination of boot camps, mentoring, counseling, workshops, and peer support, coach them through the rigors of university-level academics to pursue scientific careers?
“It seems like we can,” says Kim Godsoe, Dean of Academic Services at Brandeis. “We have. We’ve got this formula now. And it’s really exciting, really transformative.”
The program, proposed to the Posse Foundation in 2005 by Brandeis faculty member Irv Epstein and piloted with his grant as an HHMI professor, can boast tangible success. All 10 of the first science posse members are graduating, and seven will complete majors in science—chemistry, biology, and neuroscience. Six will pursue either an M.D. or Ph.D. degree. And one of them, Nana Owusu-Sarpong, was accepted to Tufts University School of Medicine through an early admissions program as a Brandeis sophomore. He will begin a joint M.D. and M.B.A. program this summer.
Meanwhile, the science posse concept has spread. Brandeis has launched another four groups of 10. The Brandeis science posse program—and a student in the most recent group, Steven Colon—were acknowledged recently by President Obama at the second White House Science Fair. Two other schools—the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—have begun their own science posse programs, the latter based on the Brandeis model. Texas A&M University and Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania have committed to launch science posses in September 2013.
These successes, however, belie a deeper story—of struggle and setbacks, soul searching and salvation. Some of the first science posse members faltered academically, especially after their first year. Others struggled with personal problems, including the need to tend to sick parents at home. Still others grappled with what many 18-year-olds at college face: questions of identity, career aspirations, and whether the initial interest in science could hold through four years of labs and long nights at the library. But all persevered and stayed connected to science in some way.
“I have changed my career course, like 50 billion times,” says Yvonne Perez, one of the science posse members who’ll graduate in May.
The child of Mexican immigrants, Perez grew up believing that becoming a doctor was the pinnacle of success. Venturing off the science track was therefore unacceptable. Yet, as she entered Brandeis and struggled through courses such as general chemistry, she questioned her own fitness for science—and almost gave it up. But the posse stepped in with academic help, moral support, and their highly visible status.
“They are the greatest source of motivation for me,” she says, “the most brilliant people I have ever met.”
As Perez realized that she was “part of this prestigious group,” chosen for some of the same reasons as the others, she gained confidence—and a reason to keep from “slacking off.”
Keeping science as her base, Perez branched off into a major called Health: Science, Society, and Policy. She plans, eventually, to obtain a Ph.D. in health or community policy. But she is still searching. “If you ask me again come May, I will tell you that I will be doing something completely different,” she adds.
Photo: Bob O’Connor