California State University, Long Beach

BUILDing Brighter Futures

An innovative program funded by Cal State Long Beach’s largest-ever grant is transforming the lives of students by opening pathways into research and doctoral programs they never thought they could pursue. Its success could mean the program is a model for universities and colleges nationwide.

BUILD – Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity – is funded by a five-year, $24,019,064 grant from the National Institutes of Health awarded in 2014. In addition to providing new research experiences to students that better prepare them for their future careers, it supports its students by providing stipends to undergrads in the biomedical and behavioral sciences to support their college expenses as they work in campus research labs with faculty mentors.

alt="BUILD students showcase their research during a poster session exhibit."
BUILD students showcase their research during a poster session exhibit.

Rhea Addo, a senior majoring in biology, says that BUILD has opened up opportunities she didn’t realize were available. “Before BUILD, I never really thought about being a scientist,” Addo said. “I didn’t know anyone who was a scientist or how to become one. The program showed me that I do have a place within the science community.”

With a strong commitment to reach students from diverse backgrounds, life experiences and perspectives, BUILD holds a number of outreach and recruitment events such as the BUILD Open House and Information Meetings.

Research lab and facilities tours also are provided for potential candidates where they can get a glimpse into the life of research trainees.

“Many biology students only really know about ‘medical’ career tracks such as M.D., pharmacy, physical therapy, dentistry, etc., but being part of the summer or lower division BUILD programs gives them the opportunity to explore if research might be right for them,” Dr. Deborah A. Fraser, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences said.

Community – and the chance to rub shoulders with faculty researchers and mentors as they pursue their work – is a common theme among BUILD students and their faculty mentors. Students also are encouraged to present scholarly research at national conferences, participate as authors on research papers submitted to journals, and attend international scientific meetings.

“BUILD has given me the opportunity to join a community of like-minded folks who have the same focus and motivation to become researchers and professors and go to graduate school,” said student Alexandra Gomez, who wants to study feminist psychology after graduating in 2017.

“It’s shown me the value of networking, going to conferences and applying for summer programs – pursuing the different opportunities available to us to prepare for higher education,” she said.

This summer, Gomez has been accepted into a fully paid, eight-week research program at the University of Michigan, one of the two institutions she’s considering for her graduate work.

The BUILD program, in its third year of the grant, has given students scaled-up research training across various STEM disciplines in behavioral sciences, clinical sciences, health sciences, natural sciences and engineering.

Roughly half of the first cohort of the Scholars were successful in securing a summer research placement at R1 institutions, such as UC Irvine, USC, University of Maryland, and Brown University. Scholars that stayed at CSULB continued to work on their research project, prepare for the GRE, and worked on their Statement of Purpose for graduate school applications.

alt="BUILD students showcase their research during a poster session exhibit."
BUILD students showcase their research during a poster session exhibit.

Dr. Courtney Ahrens has been impressed with Gomez since before she entered CSULB. As a community college student, Gomez had sought out the psychology professor to discuss a future in applied research.

“She is an amazing student,” Ahrens said. “As a Hispanic Serving Institution with a very diverse student body, we are well-positioned as an excellent pipeline for students who may not think higher education is an option.”

Ahrens says Gomez has become a valued researcher in her lab. Ahrens heads a research project that studies women from four ethnic groups in an attempt to understand the ethno-cultural influences on victims of intimate partner violence.

“BUILD is an amazing training program for students and a support for their success, but it’s also helping us researchers as we multitask and juggle so many things,” Ahrens said. “It allows students to just do research and not worry about making ends meet. They can dedicate 15 hours a week during the semester to research and up to 40 hours during the summer.”

Dr. Laura Kingsford, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Dr. Guido Urizar, associate professor of psychology, are principal investigators in the CSULB BUILD program. California State University, Long Beach has the nation’s largest BUILD program of the 10 universities offering it.

In addition to supporting selected students with stipends, BUILD also funds research grants for professors, collaborative stimulation grants to develop research, a 3D printer for engineers and research centers in engineering, health and human services, and psychology.

“We have some really good research going on here on campus, so for faculty one of BUILD’s major benefits is to bring people together, fill needs for lab assistance, and provide resources,” Kingsford said. “It’s allowed faculty members to mentor other faculty as well.”

Although it’s too early to tell how many Long Beach students will head on to Ph.D. programs, Urizar said BUILD students are prepared to succeed in those programs.

Dr. David Dowell, former interim provost and retired senior vice president, noted that helping students succeed in the challenging fields of biomed and STEM is important regionally, statewide and nationally, particularly in light of the healthcare explosion and the scientific training it requires.

“It’s important to emphasize the tremendous significance of preparing students for doctoral study for the future of our state, the nation and the world,” Dowell said. “The U.S. has not kept pace with other parts of the world in terms of our students studying the science and engineering fields. Other nations are increasing their participation in these fields at a higher rate.”

BUILD provides students with many opportunities, he added, and believes that even when grant money runs out the program will be institutionalized.

“The key thing is that students are mentored by faculty members, they talk about career options and go to a lot of workshops on how to get into grad school and be successful,” he said.

Faculty members reap benefits from BUILD, too, because the faculty members who have BUILD students on their research teams essentially employ full-time researchers in labs during the summer and half-time during the semester, Fraser said.

“This improves the complexity of the projects that can be achieved, as well as gives students the opportunity to be fully immersed in a project – involved in all aspects from start to finish,” Fraser said. “It has been really beneficial to the productivity of my lab, which is beneficial also to the student.”

Dr. David A. Stout, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, feels the value of BUILD. “I would have a really hard time running a research lab at CSULB. As an active researcher, juggling teaching loads, writing grants, running a lab and publishing…my time is very precious. My BUILD students are some of the best on campus and allow me to meet all the demands of being a researcher at CSULB. Without them my research would suffer,” Stout said.

alt="BUILD students showcase their research during a poster session exhibit."
BUILD students showcase their research during a poster session exhibit.

The BUILD program gives CSULB the ability to compete with major R1 Institutions, Stout pointed out, showing that the Long Beach campus is an active, creative research institute where teaching and research can co-exist to benefit both students and faculty.

“BUILD has become a lighthouse in the scary sea of college for underrepresented students at CSULB to navigate the unknown of college and help with factors that press upon underrepresented college students. It guides them to safety and pushes them to be the best students possible,” Stout said.

Ahrens says she treasures her role as a mentor to underrepresented students. “I know that I benefitted from a mentor, and when I first came to Long Beach State, I found a wonderful group of faculty members in the Psychology Department who were always available to answer questions,” she said.

“I wanted to give back in that way. I read their work, provide feedback on their documents, and I’m constantly training new researchers since students graduate and leave for jobs. BUILD reflects well on the university and in the long term will reflect well on us, because students will succeed and be well-prepared for graduate programs.”

The problem, though, is how to sustain the program. BUILD program directors believe that without a training program, research-intensive curriculum and multi-tiered mentoring, the future of BUILD is uncertain.

Words: Cathi Douglas, Photos: Manfong Ieong