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Broadening Access to Science: Science Posse

Research Summary

Irving Epstein's Science Posse program recruits, trains, and mentors students from New York City high schools to help improve their success in science.

With our 2006 HHMI Professors grant, we developed, in collaboration with the Posse Foundation of New York City, a Science Posse program to significantly increase the recruitment and retention of students from populations traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. The program recruits, trains, and provides mentoring and other services for "posses" of 10 inner-city students each year to prepare them for studying science at Brandeis University. A network of high school teachers and leaders of extracurricular science programs recommend talented students, who participate in an eight-month precollege training program that builds teamwork and enhances students' academic and leadership skills. The program has since been adopted by nine other universities and was recognized by President Obama at the 2012 White House Science Fair and at the January 2014 summit on college access for its success in retaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the STEM disciplines.

At Brandeis, the students attend a two-week, on-campus "boot camp" the summer before matriculation, which introduces them to the rigors of studying science. After the students start classes, they are linked with a graduate student mentor, who meets with them regularly, both individually and in groups. The initial results have been extremely encouraging, both in terms of the students' academic success and their growing enthusiasm for science. The Science Posse program has now recruited seven cohorts of 10 students each from New York City high schools, about 80 percent of them from underrepresented minority groups. In the first two classes, the graduation rate was 100 percent, with 75 percent graduating in STEM majors.

Of the first 60 Science Posse Scholars, 28 have made the dean's list, and the overall Science Posse GPA is well above a B. Science Posse scholars have been accepted at prestigious summer research programs at schools including Yale University, Case Western Reserve University, Tufts University, and the University of Utah. Among the first 20 graduates, 6 graduated with honors (one with highest honors); 1 is in a PhD program in chemistry at Cornell University; another is in a masters program in physics at University of South Florida and planning to transfer to a PhD program; several have been admitted to medical school; and others are working in research labs and planning to continue their education. 

As a result of the Posse program, minority enrollment in introductory science courses at Brandeis has increased well beyond the number of Posse students. Preliminary surveys indicate that both minority and majority students experience a learning environment that sets high standards for their success. Several Science Posse students have become campus leaders, and a group of them recently founded a Brandeis chapter of SACNAS (Advancing Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science). The Posse program has attracted national attention, with articles in the Boston Globe and Nature Chemical Biology and more than $3 million in additional funding from foundations and individual donors.

One common hurdle for all students is introductory chemistry. As part of our 2006 HHMI Professor grant, we introduced major revisions to Brandeis’s introductory chemistry course so that more students view the course as an opportunity to expand their intellectual horizons, rather than as a painful hurdle to overcome. We implemented a variety of improvements, including new demonstrations, closer coordination between the lecture and laboratory courses, a peer-taught supplementary instruction program, and video games that allow the students to interactively probe some of the topics taught in class. We taught nearly 900 students over four years in the revised general chemistry course. Surveys showed that student satisfaction was higher than with the previous chemistry course, and the percentage of students continuing on to the next level in chemistry and biology increased.

Our 2010 HHMI grant has been devoted to strengthening and extending the Science Posse with a focus on evaluation and dissemination. We are following the initial Science Posse cohorts through graduation, tracking their academic progress, their attitudes toward and persistence in science, and their postgraduate career plans, as well as their impact on the attitudes of students, faculty, and administrators at Brandeis. We continue to perfect the recruitment, selection, precollege training, boot camp, and on-campus mentoring aspects of the program, and we are preparing materials that will enable other institutions to benefit from our experience. Together with the Posse Foundation, we serve as a resource for universities starting new Science Posse programs. We have already outpaced our original goal of having the program in 10 universities by 2017. We are also exploring the possibility of developing new, more scalable programs that incorporate key elements of the Posse program—pre-college training, mentoring, early access to research—by employing social media to implement some aspects of the program.

Research in the Epstein Lab

Our primary research interests lie in the area of nonlinear chemical dynamics. Our laboratory focuses on patterns in time and space that arise in chemical reactions in media in which the reacting species may also diffuse. Phenomena of interest include periodic concentration oscillations, chemical chaos, traveling waves, and spatially periodic stationary (Turing) patterns. Nearly all of these behaviors are seen not only in the relatively simple chemical reactions studied by our group, but in living systems as well. We seek to build new systems that exhibit spatiotemporal patterns; to unveil the existence of new types of patterns; and to understand, often by using mathematical models and computer simulation, how such phenomena can arise. One goal of this work is to shed light on the more complex patterns exhibited by cells and organisms.

Because patterns are ubiquitous in all fields, this work has applications to, and uses techniques from, a wide variety of disciplines beyond chemistry, including biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, materials science, and even the social sciences. A related area of current research is the study of the dynamical behavior of networks of interacting units, which may be thought of as chemical reactions, elements of the power grid, cells, or living organisms. Many of the insights and techniques developed in the study of chemical systems can usefully be applied to understanding the properties of such networks.

Related HHMI Project Publications

Epstein, I.R. "Diversity in Chemistry: Catalyzing Change."Nature Chem. Biol. 3 (2007): 299-302.

As of May 2014