From students to scientists: Paid research experience for STEM

For science, technology, engineering and math majors at Citrus College, finding an opportunity to gain experience and earn a stipend may be only an application away.

Project director Marianne Smith, Ph.D., provides STEM students with research opportunities in a real-world work environment through the Summer Research Experience program.

“We developed this program so we could help get [STEM students] out into the world and really have intense experiences to learn a lot about themselves as a STEM majors,” Smith said.

In summer 2014, Smith with the help of Alejandra Gonzalez, STEM coordinator, matched 50 students with organizations, programs and lab mentors that matched their long-term career goals.

Though it is not considered an internship, STEM students participating receive a stipend of $5,000 throughout the duration of the eight to 10 week programs.

Three grants support the program: one a collaborative grant held by California State University Fullerton in a partnership with Citrus, and a grant at Chapman on which Citrus is the primary partner.

Since its beginning in 2011, the number of students participating in the SRE program has grown.

Smith and Alejandra Gonzalez, STEM coordinator, place students in labs that are conducting research related to the students’ interest.

They offer labs in computer science, biology, chemistry, engineering, botany, mathematics, earth and space science, physics and environmental science.

To qualify to participate, students must have successfully completed two STEM courses and also sign up for the STEM academy on the Citrus website.

Smith said there are research experience programs at four-year universities that do not serve the same number of STEM students and community colleges will occasionally provide experience for a small number of students.

“It sets us apart,” she said. “[Our SRE program] is unique among community colleges, and colleges and universities in general.”

Gonzalez also comes from a STEM background, participated in an unpaid research program when she was in college at a private four-year institution.

“I have that experience and understanding,” she said. “I know sometimes it’s hard to go and meet a professional who is looking at your application and says ‘You don’t know anything about science, you’ve never gone through it.’”

During her SRE she did have support from her professors and program, she said, but came to Citrus only to realize students at the community college level don’t have the same opportunities that she did in a private school environment.

“There aren’t research projects going on at the community college level,” she said. “So when [STEM students] transfer as juniors and seniors, they’re going in without having had the opportunity to have research experience, and they sometimes feel it’s too late when in reality it’s not.”

Biology professor, Barbara Juncosa, Ph.D., who helps to prepare selected students, said Smith works hard to ensure that the student is matched up with an appropriate lab that will supplement their career goals.

Last summer for the first time, Juncosa and Biology professor Christine Goedhart, Ph.D., who also works with the SRE program, sponsored two students helpers at Citrus.

Juncosa and physics professor Lucia Riderer, Ed.D., who also assists the SRE program, will occasionally serve as virtual mentors for students during their off campus research experiences.

Juncosa and Riderer also host workshops to prepare students to read scientific literature.

“I try to provide them with some context to what the experience might be like, “ Juncosa said.

STEM students often end up transferring and switching to other majors because of the number required units to graduate and the amount of work.

The program focuses on increasing the number of students interested in and graduating with STEM majors to find gainful employment in the United States.

“These kinds of experiences are what help cement your career goals,” Juncosa said. “When you get the hands-on experience of what science is really like, which is different from sitting in a lecture class, I think that’s what really pushes students to continue down the STEM pathway.”

Juncosa considers paid research experience programs to be critical to the future of STEM students.

Watching the transformation process of STEM students to professionals is the best part of the SRE program, Smith said.

“What we know SRE does for a student is build their science identity, build their confidence, build their analytic skills and it builds what we call ‘habits of mind,’” Smith said. “They’re thinking about science, it sets them up to transfer and really hit the ground running.”

Applications for the 2016 summer research experience program will be available in Dec.



Megan is on her second semester as Managing Editor and Ad Manger for the Clarion as well as a contributor for Logos magazine. She has served three consecutive semesters as the editor-in-chief previously for the Clarion and is now focusing on supporting her staff and leaving a substantial foundation for future student journalists at Citrus College. Megan has received a transfer degree in journalism and is finishing a second transfer degree in communications.