In 2017, John Tillotson, Associate Professor and Department Head of the Department of Science Education at the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), set out to improve the nation’s retention rate in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ( STEM). among underrepresented students through a new program that combines scholarships, professional development and socialization opportunities.
“Typically, only about 40% of students who enter college intending to be a STEM major graduate with a STEM degree,” says Tillotson. Often, students change courses during their first year. Much to his delight, however, this program – SUSTAIN, the strategic undergraduate STEM talent acceleration initiative – retained 93% of its STEM majors in its first year.
Now in its fifth year, SUSTAIN seeks to build a lasting program on the solid foundation of its original National Science Foundation grant. Like Tillotson, donors have also been thrilled with SUSTAIN’s results, funding it with large donations and working to establish an endowment, to, as Tillotson puts it, “make it last forever.”
Thanks in part to the support of these donors, SUSTAIN has seen some exciting changes this year.
First, more students are now being served. A&S welcomed its second cohort of SUSTAIN Scholars in fall 2021. While the first cohort was 28 students who went through their four years together, 10 new students will now enter each year, so there will always be 40 students SUSTAIN on campus.
Second, students from multiple majors can now participate. The original NSF grant funded students in A&S’s largest STEM disciplines: biology, chemistry, biochemistry, biotechnology, neuroscience, and forensic science. Thanks to expanded resources made possible by SUSTAIN donors, the curriculum now includes all A&S STEM majors, adding Mathematics, Physics, and Earth and Environmental Sciences. Additionally, the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences has committed funds from its own endowment for three additional students per year, bringing the total number of SUSTAIN scholars on campus to 52 over four years.
In addition to the financial stipend — $5,000 per year for the first two years — SUSTAIN scholars receive support in virtually every aspect of undergraduate life. They are brought to campus early, before the start of their first year, to get to know each other and the professors of the program. “There are a lot of team building activities,” says Tillotson.
Graduate Nori Zaccheo ’21 credits SUSTAIN for giving her a sense of balance amid her very challenging classes. “I’m someone who felt guilty if I did anything that wasn’t focused on my studies, even watching a TV show, like I was wasting time not studying,” she says. “SUSTAIN did a lot of fun non-academic activities which made me stop and relax.”
Barrington Bucknor ’21 graduate argues that these early bonding activities helped with later coursework. “With all this [difficult] the subjects and courses we went through, we did it together. If there was anything I was struggling with, someone else would help me, and vice versa.
All SUSTAIN Fellows have the opportunity to do early immersion research in their first and second years. They are paired with faculty mentors and can start working in a lab. “It’s a great experience because most undergraduates don’t get the chance to get into STEM research until their junior or senior year,” says Tillotson.
Bucknor, like others, appreciated this aspect. “I had the opportunity to go to Europe to do an internship in the summer of 2019, and it was only because I had the experience of having done research [in] my first two years in college,” he says. “As a child, you imagined you would like to see the world, but I didn’t know how. [My family had just emigrated to the United States] only two years ago, and I hadn’t planned on doing it anytime soon, but here I was, with the opportunity to visit a whole different continent.”
New to the program next year, following the entry of new academics each year, sophomores will connect with freshmen for additional support or “close peer mentoring”. In the junior and senior years, students will move from adapting to campus life to career development.
“We are working with partners at the Corning Foundation and hope to hold similar meetings with Bristol Myers and Syracuse Research Corporation, to create a series of job shadowing and STEM internship opportunities,” says Tillotson. “Perhaps in the future these STEM-focused companies would consider contributing scholarship funds and hosting SUSTAIN scholars as interns and job observers, with the understanding that some of our graduates might seek a job in these companies and stay in this region.”
The inspired and inspiring people behind the program
Generous donors who have provided funds to sustain the program beyond its initial NSF grant-funded establishment include:
- Nina Fedoroff ’66, a summa cum laude graduate and recipient of the George Arents Pioneer Medal from Syracuse University in 2003. Fedoroff served as science and technology advisor to Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, and was awarded the National Medal of Science from President George W . Bush;
- The late Marylyn Grabosky ’62, from Liverpool, NY, who graduated magna cum laude from Syracuse University in philosophy and “was a lifelong champion for women and diversity,” said said his wife Laura Desmond. “Marylyn wanted to support people with real talent who might not always have the opportunity, the break, the access.”
- Ed Mitzen ’88, a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council of the College of Arts and Sciences, and his charitable foundation, Business for Good;
- Member of the Dean’s Advisory Council of the College of Arts and Sciences Laura Feldman ’81;
- Owen Lewis ’66, ’73 Ph.D.;
- Randi Nightingale ’75; and,
- Michael ’71, ’73 MBA and Deedee ’73 Giersch.
“I was precisely one of those very poor single parents who wanted to do science,” says Fedoroff, who has made a name for himself in the field of molecular biology, studying plant transposons and writing extensively on the modification genetic. She credits a $1,000 grant from Syracuse University in her senior year as essential for her to complete her degree. “It doesn’t seem like a lot now, but it made a huge difference back then. When I met A&S Dean Karin Ruhlandt, I immediately wanted to contribute. It was already on my agenda to establish something like this in Syracuse, since Syracuse had helped me so much.
Thanks to the vision of its founders and the generosity of its supporters, SUSTAIN has gained incredible momentum, benefiting students who “just want to do science”.
Nori Zaccheo ’21
A lifelong interest in science blossoms into a career. “I came interested in forensic medicine. The good thing about Syracuse is that they force you to associate forensics with another science because forensics is an applied science. So in undergrad, I did both forensics and chemistry, and graduated in three years. I spent my fourth year at Syracuse in graduate school, getting my master’s, working in the bio-forensics lab with Professor Michael Marciano.
Although I got involved in STEM, SUSTAIN, I really helped financially. Honestly, there’s no better forensic education than Syracuse, and I don’t know if I could have afforded it without SUSTAIN. There was this risk that I would drop out of forensics, get transferred somewhere else, and only get a chemistry degree. And I also had so much support throughout my really tough chemistry class. I know a lot of people who started out as chemistry majors who weren’t into SUSTAIN and ended up switching.
Zaccheo is currently working as a science tutor.
Barrington Bucknor 21
A new immigrant solidifies his path to medicine.
“I was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved to the United States in 2015. One of SUSTAIN’s biggest supports was being matched with a research mentor so early. A person like me, who arrived as an immigrant, didn’t have strong educational support in my family, so that bridged that gap.
I enjoyed listening to the different speakers and learning how they created their path to reach their final destination. Many speakers talked about going to college as premeds, but once they realized there was more to the medical field than being a doctor or a provider, they started their own way. Hearing that there are other opportunities, even though I later decided I didn’t want to be a doctor, confirmed that there were opportunities, but also forced me to confront my own feelings about my future, and made me more sure that in fact, I really wanted to practice medicine.
Bucknor is currently a research specialist in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.
A curious STEM polymath finds her way.
“The most crucial part of SUSTAIN for me was the career exposure and mentorship. It helped me realize that I didn’t want to be a scientist for the rest of my life, but I’m a people-oriented person. I graduated with two degrees, majoring in Biotechnology and Spanish Literature and Culture.
I remember one lecturer in particular who came to campus. There was a woman who didn’t work in the hard sciences, but had a background in the hard sciences. She really liked talking to people. I identified with that – I had always wanted a career that was very customer-oriented, interacting with people. It was an affirmation – I saw a possibility for myself. A lot of speakers were even affirming for me to listen and realize, wow I really don’t want to do this; understanding this can sometimes be just as helpful, if not more so.
Santiago is now a law student studying patent law, which requires a science degree.
– Written by Lesley Porcelli