Students Gain a Sense of Belonging Through Science & Engineering Fellows Program

“From a young age I have always been in awe of the numerous amounts of species that inhabit this planet,” reflects College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) senior Johniah Gomez. “When I first learned about the damage human beings are causing to the environment, I wanted to work to protect the species that are unable to protect themselves.” A double major in biology and wildlife conservation biology, it’s a passion that set Gomez on a career path in science.

“Oftentimes, I feel isolated being one of the only underrepresented students studying natural resources science,” Gomez adds, whose feelings of isolation are common for people of color who pursue careers in STEM. However, one fellowship program available to CELS and College of Engineering (COE) undergraduate students helped Gomez feel at home in the university’s scientific community.  “By participating in the Science and Engineering Fellows program, I got to meet other underrepresented students who were pursuing science as well,” she says. “The experience made me feel more of a sense of belonging at the University of Rhode Island.”

The Science & Engineering Fellows program is focused on providing underrepresented students from diverse backgrounds with interdisciplinary experience to address real-world challenges. Students spend their summer working with faculty and staff mentors, 30 hours a week, developing professional skills in research.

Michelle Zhang, a junior cell and molecular biology major with a concentration in biotechnology and minor in sustainability, had an opportunity to work as a Science & Engineering Fellow this past summer. “My interest in DNA science motivated me to focus on the environment/life science field,” says Zhang. “I chose the program because of all the professional development opportunities that were offered as well as the lab experience,” she says.

Zhang worked in Dr. Ying Zhang’s lab in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, where she used computers to analyze metabolism in methane-producing microorganisms. She gained important skills in computer science, biochemistry, and metabolism, which helped her with her academics.

Keyline Moreno, a sophomore majoring in biological sciences on the pre-med track, assisted shark expert Dr. Bradley Wetherbee of the Department of Biological Sciences for her Science & Engineering Fellowship. She was able to help Dr. Wetherbee collect life history data of blacktip sharks and analyze how geographical location can affect the data.

“I love being able to represent a field of study that is underrepresented by women of color like myself and excel in it,” says Moreno.  She also taught high school students about sharks as part of the fellowship during the college’s week-long Shark Camp program. “It was great to see their faces when the trawl was brought onto the boat and they saw all of the marine animals that live in the waters near us,” says Moreno.

Kedreack Brown, a junior biological sciences major minoring in chemistry and computer science, was also able to help lead Shark Camp through his fellowship. “I truly find the natural world so fascinating,” says Brown, who is deeply interested in studying the environment. “There is just so much to learn and discover in this world, and how us humans affect the world around us.”. As part of his fellowship, Brown worked with Dr. Jason Kolbe of the Biological Sciences Department studying tail self-amputation in lizards and how vertebrae numbers differ between urban and natural populations.

Brown especially enjoyed the sense of community he developed with other Science & Engineering Fellows. “My favorite part of the fellowship was that I was surrounded by like-minded people who want to do great things in their lives through STEM,” he says.      

After completing their summer research, fellows participate in a two-credit course, “Communicating Environmental Research and Outreach,” during the fall semester. The course prepares them for the culmination of their research experience: a poster presentation illustrating their research at the University of Rhode Island’s Undergraduate Research Symposium in December. 

Johniah Gomez, an alumna of the program, reflects on how significant the experience has been since completing the fellowship in summer 2018. She worked with the Organization of Tropical Studies this past summer at the Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica through the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF REU). There, she studied egg clutch development of the emerald glass frog. She credits the Science and Engineering Fellows program with helping to prepare her for the research opportunity in Costa Rica. “The Science and Engineering Fellowship program helped me gain confidence in myself as a scientist,” she says.

Like Gomez, the other fellows have great aspirations for their future. Zhang hopes to work with vaccines and immunology in the biotechnology industry, while Moreno and Brown both plan to eventually go into medicine. Thanks to the program, they are one step closer to achieving their dreams.