Win-Win Teamwork

November 5, 2012 | CUNY Matters, The University

Faculty mentors and exceptional students help each other — and the University — to further cutting-edge research.

The right mentor can change a student’s life – and possibly trigger a cascade of mentoring that ripples through the next generation.
That’s the experience of cognitive neuropsychologist Jennifer Mangels, a professor at Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center, whose research into how people learn — particularly from mistakes —  has won support from esteemed national institutes and agencies. This year, two undergraduate students in her Dynamic Learning Lab won $126,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships.

OPENING CAREER AVENUES: CCNY chemist Barbara Zajc, left, launched Deborah Ayeni into doctoral studies at Yale.

“I’m only here as a professor because I had a great mentor as an undergraduate who saw my potential and put as much into me as she would have put into a graduate student,” Mangels said. “That’s what I do for my students. I treat them like the integral part of the research team that they are.”

Despite the myth that mentoring is limited to small liberal arts colleges, CUNY offers many opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with their professors. Mentoring occurs across academic disciplines, but is particularly evident in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).

For example, a Macaulay Honors College program links scientists with undergraduates who seek research opportunities. Hunter College found so much student interest in mentor-based science internships that it tracks federal and private funding opportunities on a special website. Mentoring also is pivotal at the NOAA-Cooperative Remote Environmental Sensing Technology Center, a multi-campus, multi-university venture based at City College.

There is a good deal of experimentation with mentoring. At New York City College of Technology, faculty mentored eight alumni graduate students who, in turn, as teaching assistants mentored undergraduates in everything from content to study skills; students in their 22 classes exceeded the semester average passing rate for those courses by an average of 10.5 percent. In a pilot involving CUNY’s three Bronx campuses last summer, six Hostos and Bronx Community College students conducted research with five Lehman College biologists and chemists, learning not only laboratory technique, but also how to present data, draft research papers and prepare explanatory posters. One participant, Ghanian immigrant Godwin Boaful (Bronx Community College, 2013) has won a place in the Kaplan Leadership Program, which includes a transfer scholarship to pursue his bachelor’s degree.

Mentoring has become a key part of CUNY’s Decade of Science. The record 16 students and alumni who won NSF Graduate Research Fellowships in 2012 could each point to a CUNY mentor who helped set them on a path of scientific inquiry. No public university in the Northeast had more NSF winners than CUNY.

While there are formal mentoring programs around the University, most mentoring is informal. Typically, a faculty member uses federal or private funding to work with a small number of students one-on-one.

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BRAIN TRUST: After graduation, Belén Carolina Guerra- Carrillo, right, managed Baruch neuropsychologist Jennifer Mangels’ lab.

Consider NSF winner Belén Carolina Guerra-Carrillo (Baruch, B.A. in psychology, 2010), a student of Jennifer Mangels who was so intrigued with her undergraduate research that she signed on to manage Mangels’ lab for two years after graduation. This fall, Guerra-Carrillo planned to start a doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, intending to explore what physically happens in the brain when people learn and how those changes affect academic performance.

Mangels’ other NSF-winning student, Jimena Santillan (Hunter, B.A. in psychology, 2012), planned to start a doctoral program at the University of Oregon this fall. An emigrant from Mexico, where she attended an English- immersion school, Santillan intends to explore whether being bilingual helps people focus on what’s important while ignoring everything else that’s going on.

For her own research, Mangels examines “how we learn after we’ve made a mistake or experienced failure….” Her research has implications for teaching. Take what Mangels calls the “very American thing” of giving a medal to every kid in a race to boost the self-esteem of those who bring up the rear – or, by extension, giving lagging students some reward for effort on a test. Does that help them learn? The preliminary evidence is yes, but only if they and their teachers think they will see long-term improvement based on their efforts. Mangels’ goal now is to work with researchers and educators to incorporate interventions promoting this message into everyday teaching practices.

There also are implications for college classrooms. “We’re looking at what mindsets can teachers encourage to get students focused less on performance and more on the learning process,” Mangels said. “I always have the undergraduates up at the front for lab meetings, so they feel they’re as much a part of the process as my graduate students. If they are close, I can better read their faces to see if they are with me or not and adjust the level of detail in my presentation.”

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“IT WAS WONDERFUL.” Hunter College astronomer Kelly Cruz, left, could rely on selfstarter Vivienne Baldassare.

Few things make teachers prouder than when a student nails it. Just ask Kelle Cruz, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Hunter College, about an undergraduate she mentored last year, Vivienne Baldassare.

Cruz asked Baldassare (Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, B.A. in physics, 2012) to help with research on wannabe stars called brown dwarfs. Baldassare measured how fast some were moving away from or toward Earth. “Vivienne wrote code to measure the wavelength shift in kilometers per second, handed me the final results with a bow on it and said, ‘See you at the next AAS [American Astronomical Society] meeting.’ It was wonderful.”

Then Baldassare took off for a doctoral program at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor where, with an NSF graduate research fellowship, “I hope that my research will contribute to our understanding of the role that galaxy mergers and active galactic nuclei play in galaxy evolution,” she said.

Cruz and Baldassare met at the American Museum of Natural History, where all CUNY astronomers hold appointments and CUNY students are welcome to be part of the community. Baldassare was wrapping up study with College of Staten Island associate professor Charles Liu, who had changed her life by asking her to classify galaxies according to their shapes. “I’d never thought about astronomy as a career, but I found I loved it,” she said.

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"A TURNING POINT:" York College biologist Gerard McNeil, left, urged Kirk Haltaufderhyde to pursue a doctorate.

York College associate professor Gerard McNeil has found a way to expand mentoring beyond the limits of his small biology research laboratory. “There are so few research labs and so many students, but you can give many more students a research experience by bringing real-life scientific problems into the classroom,” he said.

So McNeil teamed up with the Genomics Education Partnership, a consortium based at Washington University in St. Louis. “We use computers as tools for students to answer unknown biological questions in the classroom,” he said. “The students at each [of more than 80 undergraduate colleges] get their own piece of the genomics puzzle. They learn to gather data, use the required tools and develop and test hypotheses. Those skills are applicable to every area of science. All the data is captured at Washington University, which puts it together and makes sense of it at the genomic level. Before, we needed a wet lab and a lot of room to ask unknown biological questions; now all you need is a computer.”

Which is not to say that McNeil doesn’t engage in one-on-one mentoring and old-fashioned wet-bench work in his lab. Since 2002, the National Institutes of Health-Minority Biomedical Research Support/Support of Competitive Research (SCORE) program has supported his work. SCORE seeks to increase the capabilities and competitiveness of investigators at colleges like York, where at least half the students are from groups underrepresented in biomedical and behavioral research. McNeil’s lab focuses on the genetics behind oogenesis, the formation, development and maturation of ova, or egg cells, and is “still learning new things every day.”

With McNeil as his mentor, 2012 NSF winner Kirk Haltaufderhyde (York College, B.S. in biotechnology, 2011) chose a career in science after working in the audio-video industry. Tapping into data provided by the Genomics Education Partnership, he completed three original research projects and is a co-author on a manuscript being prepared. “To have the research experience with Dr. McNeil was definitely a turning point,” said Haltaufderhyde, 32.

McNeil said that “when you find a student like Kirk, you grab him.” They met when he was taking McNeil’s General Biology 2 class and asked for a recommendation for a summer research program. “I said, ‘What about my lab?’ He had not thought about graduate school, so we spent the summer talking about that as he did research.” Haltaufderhyde is pursuing a doctorate at Brown University.

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Predicting Drug Actions: Doctorate-bound Vincent Xue, left, worked with Hunter biologist Lei Xie to develop a Web tool.

Wouldn’t it be better if researchers could rationally predict how drugs will work when they’re still in the test tube, rather than relying on trial and error after millions have been spent on development? That’s one thing Hunter College associate professor Lei Xie hopes to accomplish in his Computational Systems Biology, Molecular Modeling and Bioinformatics Laboratory.

“We’re trying to predict drug-target binding,” explains Xie. “Suppose we design drug A to bind to protein A. If we predict that the drug also binds to protein B — and we know that protein B can cause another disease — we can use this drug to treat this other disease. This will save a lot of money in drug development.”

This is the kind of exploration that Xie encourages the students he mentors to tackle. Among them is 2012 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship winner Vincent Xue (Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, B.A. in computer science, minor in biology, 2012), who planned to begin doctoral work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall. Working with his Hunter mentor, Xue developed a Web tool to analyze and visualize the effect of mutations in proteins that enable cancer tumors to survive hypoxia (oxygen deprivation). Xie praised Xue’s work.

“Hypoxia is quite complex, and we need new methods to understand it. Vincent focused on developing new methods to understand this genetic mutation.”

As well as awards from the major government sources and pharmaceutical companies, Xie received a 2010 Genome Technology Young Investigator award and a 2012 Hunter President Award for Faculty Advancement.

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As Barbara Zajc sees it, when those “who are motivated about science come into your lab and get involved in research, it opens the door to different career opportunities.” Zajc, an associate professor of chemistry at City College, enjoys her role as a mentor, particularly with standout students like 2012 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship winner Deborah Ayeni (City College, 2011). Now in the experimental pathology doctoral program at Yale School of Medicine, Ayeni, who was born in Nigeria, says she intends to work with cancer-causing genes to seek “ways of interfering with cancer pathways, tumor regression and how cancers develop resistance to chemical agents.” Ayeni’s undergraduate research won her a CUNY-sponsored Jonas E. Salk Scholarship for graduate study in addition to her NSF award. She anticipates a career in industrial research.

Zajc specializes in fluoroorganic chemistry, developing new methods for chemically swapping fluorine atoms for hydrogen atoms in organic compounds. “A compound may be active, but you may not know why,” she says. “If you change it a bit, the underlying difference can give you the answer.” She currently mentors two undergraduates, two master’s students and one doctoral student, Rakesh Kumar, who in September defended his dissertation. Kumar is slated to conduct post-doctoral research in Zurich at one of the world’s top universities for STEM studies and management and where another CCNY student Zajc mentored, Maggie He, is nearing completion of her Ph.D.

“What I find very rewarding,” Zajc says, “is that students can come from very underprivileged environments. Participating in research opens new avenues for them in terms of their careers and their lives. When I hear from students who left my lab, and they say ‘I’m doing well’ or ‘I learned a lot,’ that’s what counts.”