By James Tinney

Dr. William Head says Isael Rubio used to be one of his “shoelace kids,” so shy that he’d talk to you while looking at the floor.

Liver toxinNow, the Alisal High graduate and first-generation college student is a recipient of one of the nation’s most prestigious fellowships and is conducting his Ph.D. research in the plant pathology lab at the University of Wisconsin, one of the nation’s leading research institutions.

Such are the transformations that happen through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center at Cal State Monterey Bay. As UROC’s director, Head oversees a program that has had remarkable success in advancing young researchers to the first rank of U.S. academia.

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Three members of this year’s graduating class and an alumna also received NSF Graduate Research Fellowships. Michael Diaz of Upland, Liz Lopez of Sacramento, Emily Roncase of Ridgecrest and Stacy Mauzey of Salinas, were awarded the fellowships, which provide $90,000 to support three years of graduate education.

In 2012, four CSUMB undergraduate students received fellowships from the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

In addition to Rubio, Kevin Johnson, Alexandra Davis, and Eric Ross each were awarded $90,000 for graduate studies over three years.

“I just thought that we are from a small school, little CSUMB. I had the feeling that people from more prestigious schools would be the most likely ones to get the scholarships,” Rubio said.

But with UROC support, he moved forward.

“The more I got into it, I saw that I did have a lot of good research experience that would help me.”

For outstanding students in the sciences, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships are the brass ring. The four CSUMB students were among roughly 2,000 winners (from about 12,000 applicants) of the nation’s oldest fellowship program directly supporting graduate students in science, technology, math and engineering fields.

Past recipients include U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin, Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, and a number of Nobel Prize winners.

The awards place Cal State Monterey Bay in select company. No other CSU campus had as many recipients, and CSUMB’s total matches such major state research institutions as the University of Utah, the University of Tennessee, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Oregon.

All those universities have far larger enrollments than Cal State Monterey Bay.

lionfishAs an undergraduate, Rubio conducted research with Dr. Carolee Bull at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Research Service in Salinas, investigating bacterial plant pathology. Johnson, mentored by Cal State Monterey Bay’s Dr. Aparna Sreenivasan, researched freshwater cyanobacterial algal blooms in the Monterey Bay area. Davis studied seafloor mapping with Cal State Monterey Bay’s Dr. Rikk Kvitek and invasive lionfish at the Perry Institute for Marine Science in the Bahamas under the mentorship of Oregon State University’s Dr. Mark Hixon. Ross, mentored by Cal State Monterey Bay’s Dr. Susan Alexander and UC Davis’ Dr. Gabrielle Nevitt, investigated whether seabirds use smell to assess mate compatibility.

“The UROC staff did everything they could to make us good candidates,” said Davis, who first came to Cal State Monterey Bay as a transfer student to play water polo. “They got us started on multiple research projects; we did a lot of mentoring and outreach. Those are all really good building blocks for your resumé.”

A self-described “water person,” Davis said Head won her over with his discussion of the research possibilities available through the university’s science diving program. She is now attending Oregon State University where her doctoral research focuses on the impact of invasive species on coral reefs.

The students say the lessons learned at Cal State Monterey Bay have served them well as graduate students.

“When I arrived (for graduate study at the University of Wisconsin, Madison) I was able to hit the ground running. Within a month my principal investigator and I had completed an analysis that was presented at an international conference and is now being prepared for publication,” Ross said. “The technical skills I learned at CSUMB were pivotal in (helping me) jump right into my program here.”

Ross’s doctoral research uses bird population data to investigate shifting bird migration patterns in the U.S. and how they relate to climate change.

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“These four represent only the beginning. Their accomplishments serve as a model for upcoming students and truly change how new UROC students think – and act – about their future,” Head said. “They would not be where they are without the powerful mentoring they received, and they will be powerful mentors themselves.”

The CSUMB graduates are fulfilling that prediction. Johnson served on a peer review panel at UCSB, helping other students with their applications for the NSF fellowship program.

“The professors here (at UCSB) are usually too busy to go over more than one draft of a proposal. It was great for me to be able to go through this process at a university where people took the time to go through multiple, multiple drafts with me,” said Johnson.

AlgaeHelping mentor fellow graduate students at a prominent research institution wasn’t exactly the goal that Johnson had in mind when he first came to CSUMB as a transfer student from Cuesta College.

“I wanted to finish a bachelor’s degree and be a lab tech at a hospital,” Johnson said. “I was just trying to get through and done and out. I never expected to be where I am now.”

That kind of story exemplifies why Head established UROC. It is focused on raising the expectations of promising students and building a record of success.

“It’s a phenomenal achievement to receive a GRFP fellowship as an undergraduate,” said Head. “Our students do things as undergraduates that many graduate students do not do. They have robust research experiences, they present at national conferences, they publish in peer-reviewed journals.”

In January 2011, Johnson went to Washington, D.C. to present at a poster competition about his research on microcystin, a liver toxin that has been linked to sea otter deaths in Monterey Bay. He won first place.

Batting in the Big Leagues illustration“That was probably the first time I got a glimpse of what was possible,” said Johnson, whose current research at UC Santa Barbara focuses on ocean acidification and its links to global climate change.

Head launched UROC in January 2009. Students typically spend two years in the program, take courses focusing on research and work in undergraduate research positions on campus and beyond. His goal is to have UROC serve 300 students annually through workshops, seminars and other services, and to place at least 100 students annually in paid research positions.

“We’re creating a force out there. That’s what it really is about,” he said. “By having four of our undergrads awarded GRFP fellowships, there is a sense of ‘Wow, we’re from little CSU Monterey Bay, but we can bat in the Big Leagues.’”