By Deborah Lohse
The De Novo Fellowship helps students from underrepresented groups to attend industry conferences and conduct research in STEM.
As a student in the 1980s at UC Davis, Angel Islas didn’t see a single person like him—first-generation Mexican-American—among his fellow biochemistry majors. It was the same in Stanford’s graduate biology department, where he was told he was the first Mexican-American and only the second Latino to graduate from that department in 100 years.
But Islas had at least one advantage: In the summer before his sophomore year, he got an internship at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
One of his many jobs was to shave rats’ bellies, he recalls. Also, “I learned the programming language Fortran. I was involved in modeling how airline upholstery and plastics would catch fire,” he recalls. “Later we worked on a project for the space shuttle and so many different projects that were all so cool.” There was a distinct moment, he says, where he stopped his work and thought “I love this. This is my lab. I can do whatever I want. I literally jumped for joy.”
“I literally jumped for joy.”
When he became a biology professor at Santa Clara, he wanted to provide similar jump-for-joy moments for first-generation or other underrepresented students who wouldn’t normally be exposed to research in high school, specialized summer camps, or enrichment programs.
Islas believed that hands-on research experience—learning to think like a scientist—would reduce the number of such students who drop out of science majors after tough classes, and also help build the diverse pipeline of future scientists companies and industries are demanding.
Learning to Think Like a Scientist
“It’s not a simple field to be attracted to in the first place, and we were making it harder because we’re historically excluding so many folks,” he says.
Around 2001, he and chemistry professor Mike Carrasco created what they called the De Novo program for research internships for underrepresented science majors, funded by faculty sharing their own grant proceeds. That program, which lasted about five or six years, was revived and revamped last year as De Novo Fellowships.
The De Novo Fellowship pays a stipend for housing and living expenses to enable students from underrepresented groups to conduct research in STEM, and to attend industry conferences. The Fellowship was designed for 10 students, but demand was so great 15 were admitted last year. The School of Engineering awarded five fellowships and the College of Arts & Sciences—under the umbrella of the REAL Program that funds summer-research projects—awarded 10.
Largest Undergraduate STEM Complex in the Nation
De Novo is part of a larger inclusion and diversity initiative in STEM at SCU. When the Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation opens in September 2021, becoming the largest undergraduate STEM complex in the nation, it will include an Inclusion and Diversity Hub which will be used for collaboration, events, speaker engagements, and enhanced experiences for underrepresented students, including the De Novo Fellows.
The De Novo Fellows are thrilled with the program’s support.
“Shadowing someone in a lab for a day is not going to give you the same experience as being able to stay for three or four months of summer, and to have the financial stability to do that,” said fellow Noel Del Toro ’21, who is studying maternal brain responses to offspring distress in the lab of psychology and neuroscience professor Lindsay Halladay.
Fellow Rene Harper ’20, who is co-writing a paper on her research on arthropod silks with biology professor Janice Edgerly-Rooks, said she’s now considering getting a doctoral degree. “If I want to go into a lab and be my own lab manager, I need a Ph.D.,” she said.
Islas said he’s been delighted to see the program making exactly the impact he hoped for.
“There is a moment in time when students understand in a sort of deep, visceral way that they belong in science and engineering,” he said. “Those are the moments we live for as teachers...when they stop feeling like they’re visitors and start feeling like they own STEM.”
Nov 10, 2020
De Novo Fellows Rene Harper ’20, Noel Del Toro ’21, and Dylan Lawton ’20, with biology professor Angel Islas, who helped start the De Novo Fellowship program. The funds enable STEM students from underrepresented groups to conduct research and attend industry conferences.