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Student at work in the Student Center of Science Engagement

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The science engagement theory

2011 A.D.: Northeastern Illinois University freshman subject Mariah Green discovers the Student Center for Science Engagement (SCSE). Months later, subject joins her new SCSE friends and mentors in San Jose, Calif., for the national conference of the Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). "I was overwhelmed," subject later notes, "but in a good way."

2012 A.D.: Green attends the SACNAS conference in Seattle to deliver her first poster presentation. Judges express their support. Subject gains confidence.

2014 A.D.: Green serves an internship with the National Soil Erosion Research Lab in West Lafayette, Ind., then travels to Los Angeles and tours the La Brea Tar Pits. Subject sets her sights on a career in paleontology.

2015 A.D.: Green accepts a spot in the Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering Program at Stanford University, where she will study micropaleontology. SCSE staff members are observed celebrating subject’s successes and potential.

While this case study is ongoing, it certainly looks promising—and there are many more where it came from. In the six years since its launch, Northeastern’s Student Center for Science Engagement is proving to be a valuable and versatile resource for hundreds of students in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. The goal is not only to graduate those students, but also to provide them with a holistic preparation for their post-graduation lives, whether that’s in industry, government agency or academia.

Like coaches who push their athletes to accomplish physical feats they never thought possible, the three full-time SCSE staff members—in collaboration with Northeastern science and math faculty members—challenge their students to be better in every aspect of their professional lives. "The SCSE sets a high standard, and we ask that the students reach it," SCSE Coordinator Sylvia Atsalis said. "This is the high standard that graduate school or the work world is going to set, and we see Northeastern students as professionals in training for that world. We want them to succeed at the highest level."

The SCSE was founded in 2009 with an award from the Department of Education’s College Cost Reduction and Access Act for Hispanic Serving Institutions grants. In addition to a naturally lit, inviting study lounge equipped with white boards for students who want to work in groups, the SCSE offers five key components of success to its students: one-on-one advising, career and study tip workshops, tutoring, research opportunities, and access to conferences. The services are all free and available to students on a completely voluntary basis.

“With the SCSE, it’s about taking advantage of the opportunities or resources,” said Green, a junior studying Earth Science who is the first member of her family to attend college. “You don’t have to be the smartest person in the universe. At the end of the day, it’s about how passionate you are and taking advantage of the resources, different mentors, anybody who is there to support you.”

For Green, that support started with an invitation to SACNAS in her freshman year and continued through tutoring, internships, research and hands-on help polishing her resume from SCSE Specialist Paloma Vargas. “When I first came to the SCSE with a resume, I wasn’t sure what I was doing,” Green said. “After Paloma looked over my resume, we got it to the point that it was well-crafted, professional. It makes me proud. It looks impressive."

While Green has used all of SCSE’s services, other students have found success by seeking help only in specific areas. In 2012, Kevin Gallagher joined the trip to SACNAS in Seattle, where he won an Outstanding Student Poster Award for his work on bacterial structure and function. The Biology major won more awards at future conferences and even joined Biology Associate Professor Emina Stojkovic at the 2014 International Congress of Photobiology in Cordoba, Argentina, to deliver a podium presentation. Gallagher is on track to graduate in the summer of 2015 and will enter the Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences Program at Northwestern University in the fall. “The way I see it, SCSE was my launching pad,” Gallagher said. “They pushed me out the door. I don’t think I would have had the motivation or even thought to apply to a conference until they encouraged me and showed me how.”

Successes such as Gallagher’s do not go unnoticed—nor uncelebrated—by the four-person SCSE staff, which also includes Marilyn Saavedra-Leyva and Laura West. “We love our students,” said Atsalis, who has a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology and studies primate ecology. “We are invested deeply in their success, and we get as excited as they do when they share their good news.”

Adjacent to the SCSE office is the spacious lounge for students to study and seek tutoring. Christopher Castro, a Math major who graduated in May, called the lounge his favorite place on campus, not just because of the space but also the community it created. “It’s comfortable,” Castro said. “I could go in there pretty much any time and expect to see someone else who was taking classes that I was interested in and we could help each other out.”

Castro’s career trajectory was altered in the summer of 2014, when the SCSE helped him land a summer research opportunity at the University of Colorado studying computational biology. “I went in there not really knowing what I was doing. There was a lot to learn,” he said. He quickly learned what to do—and learned to love biology. Castro will enter the Bioinformatics graduate program at the University of Michigan in the fall.

Green also plans to pursue a Ph.D., almost certainly in paleontology. “It amazes me how far I’ve come in life, especially in scientific fields,” Green said. “What gives me the passion is knowing that I can succeed. I want to show my nieces and nephews that I’m studying science. They may love it just like I do. I’m motivated by motivating other people to go into science.”

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