Volume 13, Number 2, 2005

Connections to the Colleges

Opening doors to success in science

Biochemistry major Shaila Parker looks around the classroom in many of her science courses, she says, and she doesn’t see a lot of other African-American faces.

But, when she visits the Network of Undergraduate Collaborative Learning Experiences for Underrepresented Scholars (NUCLEUS) office in Brown Lab during breaks between classes, it’s a different story.

“There aren’t very many minority students in the sciences, and it can be a little intimidating in class,” Parker, AS ’07, says. “It’s nice to have a program like NUCLEUS where you can hang out and study and see other minority students in similar kinds of majors. To me, it sort of re-emphasizes that other people are doing it, and so can I.”

NUCLEUS, which focuses on underrepresented minorities but is open to any UD student in the sciences, is one of the Access-to-Science Initiatives in the College of Arts and Sciences. The goal is to encourage academically talented students to remain in the sciences and successfully complete their bachelor’s degrees. The long-term goal is to encourage them to pursue graduate studies and then research careers in academia, government or industry.

More broadly, the initiatives seek to increase diversity in such fields as chemistry, biochemistry and biological sciences, where—as Parker has noticed—African Americans and Latinos are underrepresented in universities and professions nationwide.

“We want to try to convince students that research is a viable career option,” David Usher, associate chair of biological sciences and assistant director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant for education, says.

“Many, especially many minority students, don’t have a good idea of what being a researcher involves.”

Hal White, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is director of the Undergraduate Science Education grant from the HHMI. He and Usher administer the grant, which funds the NUCLEUS program. When created in 1992 with an earlier grant from the institute, NUCLEUS served 22 chemistry and biochemistry undergraduates. Today, NUCLEUS boasts more than 160 current participants in nearly 20 different science and applied science majors. Many of its 260 alumni have gone on to earn graduate and professional degrees from a variety of institutions.

The program offers “a network of support that will foster academic success,” according to NUCLEUS coordinator Cherie Dotson, who has a doctoral degree in chemistry and joined UD in 1999. She monitors students’ academic progress and oversees all NUCLEUS services.

“The freshmen get special attention. They work with a mentor through our Lasting Links program, and we have monthly freshman seminars that focus on such issues as time management and study skills,” Dotson says.

The program refers students to tutoring services if needed and can help them find and apply for financial aid. In addition, NUCLEUS offers a variety of career-oriented activities. The HHMI grant also funds an Undergraduate Research Scholars program at UD, and NUCLEUS has expanded on that by offering research apprenticeships. A research apprentice is generally a student who is not yet ready to conduct full-fledged research but who can assist a faculty member with his or her work several hours a week and learn basic lab skills.

“The research apprenticeship really kills two birds with one stone,” Usher says. “It pays the student a stipend, which helps financially, and it familiarizes the student with the research process.”

“We started the apprenticeship program two years ago, and we’ve had a lot of success,” Dotson says. “We’ve had many students who’ve moved from that into one of the undergraduate research programs on campus. As apprentices, they learn experimental techniques, and they become known by a faculty member who can mentor them.”

In addition to the specific support services offered through NUCLEUS, another key resource is the program’s physical space near the main entrance in Brown Laboratory, where students can study, meet with their mentors, check in with Dotson or relax between classes. The College of Arts and Sciences remodeled the space two years ago, enabling the program to move to a more visible and comfortable location, Usher says. The fact that the renovation was quickly approved and fast-tracked, he says, “shows the University’s level of commitment to this program.”

Dotson says the new space “has had a phenomenal impact on students,” who often view the program office and its study and lounge area as a second home. “Students feel connected to this program, and we have student coordinators who help reach out to their peers, recruit them and keep them involved,” she says. “You can come into this office almost any hour of the day or night and find students working together, studying with a mentor or using the computers or research materials.”

Usher says he and Dotson used the success of NUCLEUS “as a steppingstone” to apply to the National Institutes of Health for a grant that they have used to start a related Access-to-Science program called “Delaware Bridges to the Baccalaureate.” The Bridges program, operated in collaboration with Delaware Technical and Community College, supports underrepresented minority students in making the transition from an associate’s degree at the community college to a bachelor’s degree at UD.

“It’s easy to get lost in the system,” Usher says. “These programs are here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

—Ann Manser, AS ’73, CHEP ’73