Diverse class of bioscience students dons lab coats, hits the books

The new class of 135 graduate students in the biosciences includes a record number of underrepresented minorities.

Tawaun Lucas (far right) is a new student in the PhD neurosciences program. 

Norbert von der Groeben

Tawaun Lucas spent the two weeks before autumn quarter in an intensive, 12-hour-a-day boot camp. He learned how to prepare brain-tissue slides, measure electron activity and make electrophysiological recordings, among other essential tricks of the trade for a beginning neuroscience researcher.

 “I never thought I would ever even be in science,” said Lucas, who played three sports and was an all-league running back in high school. He dreamed of playing in the NFL, or maybe of competing in the Olympics, but never of attending graduate school at Stanford.

“After high school, no one expected me to even go to college,” he said. “I wasn’t a good student. No one in my family ever had gone to college.”

Lucas, 22, who grew up in Compton, Calif., only changed his aspirations from sports to science after being sidelined by injuries his sophomore year at California State University-Northridge, where he was on a scholarship as a track athlete. But starting Stanford’s neurosciences PhD program is a dream come true, he said.

“Stanford was always my first choice,” he said. “I applied to 12 schools.” When he got the acceptance call from Stanford, he said he nearly dropped the phone. “I almost teared up and cried,” he said. “It was surreal. I can’t even describe the experience.”

Lucas, who is African-American, is one of a record number of underrepresented minorities in this year’s new class of 135 graduate students in the biosciences. There are 24 such students in this year’s class, compared with 15 in last year’s. The new class also represents the highest percentage of applicants ever to accept offers of admission to graduate programs in the biosciences at Stanford.

“We made a very concerted effort to encourage these increases,” said Terrance Mayes, EdD, assistant dean for graduate education. 

Esha Atolia, Marisa Hom, Yilin Fan, Carlos Gonzalez and Zach Harvey, graduate students in the biosciences, attend the PhD Lab Coat Ceremony on Sept. 30. 

Norbert von der Groeben

“We hope it’s a trend,” said Anthony Ricci, PhD, professor of otolaryngology and faculty director of the ADVANCE Summer Institute, an eight-week academic fellowship and transition program for incoming biosciences graduate students from diverse backgrounds. The program is now in its second year.

“It’s so important to have diversity in all areas of science and research,” he added.

Increased outreach

In recent years, the biosciences office of graduate education has broadly increased its outreach efforts to underrepresented students, including low-income students, students who would be the first in their families to attend graduate school, students with disabilities and students who self-identify as LGBTQ.

The office also has encouraged greater outreach from faculty and has added elements of graduate school application preparation — such as an increased focus on GRE test-taking skills and mock interview practice — to a nine-week, research-intensive residential program for undergraduates interested in graduate degrees in the biosciences. Known as the Stanford Summer Research Program/Amgen Scholars Program, it serves as a pipeline to Stanford and other top graduate programs across the country.

Efforts also included the formation of the Biosciences Diversity Advisory Council, made up of faculty and admissions chairs, whose mission is to develop the best practices for recruiting and admitting a highly talented and diverse cohort of scholars, Mayes said.

Lloyd Minor, dean of the medical school, addresses the new PhD bioscience students 

Norbert von der Groeben

Student profile

The new class of bioscience students spans a variety of disciplines. Its members entered programs in the School of Medicine, the School of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Engineering.

They come from 20 different countries and completed their undergraduate degrees at 77 different institutions. Their top alma mater is UCLA, where 11 did their undergraduate work.

The class was drawn from an applicant pool of 2,047, and the yield of students who accepted offers increased from last year’s 61 percent to 64 percent. Fifty-three percent of the new students are men, and 47 percent are women.

“These students will do great things at Stanford and then even greater things, that we can’t even begin to imagine, in their futures beyond Stanford,” said Dan Herschlag, PhD, professor of biochemistry and the medical school’s senior associate dean for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs.

The dean of the medical school also welcomed the new students with words of encouragement and praise: “During their careers they will uncover fundamental mysteries of biology, develop new technologies and advance the treatment and prevention of disease,” said Lloyd Minor, MD. “We will encourage their high-risk, high-reward ideas by giving them what they need to be innovative: time to succeed over the long term and freedom to go where the research leads.”

Dan Herschlag, senior associate dean for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, speaks at the lab coat ceremony.

Norbert von der Groeben

Eye-opening experience

Lucas, who participated in both the ADVANCE Summer Institute and the Stanford Summer Research Program/Amgen Scholars Program, said the latter, which he attended as an undergraduate, helped open his eyes and make him realize he had the potential to contribute to scientific knowledge.

“If you told anyone in high school that I would go to Stanford someday, they would probably just have laughed at you,” he said.

His interest in science didn’t develop until his undergraduate years, he said. He was living at home with his parents, working as a bank teller while attending Cal State Northridge. He began to turn his energies to academics when athletics was no longer an option.

“Once I figured out what I wanted to do, I became focused,” he said. He chose to study psychology because the environment in which he grew up sparked his curiosity about human behavior. “I grew up in an urban area around some pretty crazy people who made some pretty weird decisions,” he said. “I began to wonder, Why do people raised in Compton or Watts, for example, make different choices than someone raised in, say, Manhattan Beach? Is it socioeconomic? Psychological? Is there a genetic element?”

Ricci, who met Lucas during the ADVANCE Summer Institute and was the director of the two-week neuroscience boot camp, said Lucas provides an excellent example of how future scientists are needed from diverse backgrounds in order to spark creativity and contribute to advances in science.

“A person’s background is really important to how they think about a problem,” Ricci said. “If everyone were white, middle-class, Harvard-trained, they might think too much alike. Science needs people who think differently.”


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