In this episode, our special guest Dr. Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín shares the story of how his mother’s experience as a first-generation college student shaped his approach to teaching biology and continues to inform his leadership as Associate Director of PRISM, the Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a Hispanic-Serving institution within the City University of New York (CUNY). You’ll hear exactly how PRISM intentionally “meets students where they are” by actively recruiting undergraduate forensics students for faculty mentoring, career research, and professional development opportunities. PRISM increases student persistence and completion and has been recognized as a model for excellence for improving the number of underrepresented students in the STEM pipeline by the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences. We first got to know Edgardo when he began teaching with Labster, and we’re proud to say that he was a 2022 winner of the Labster STEM Excellence Award. Stay tuned for the end of this episode, when Edgardo flips the script and interviews SJ!
April: [00:00:03] Hey, everyone. I'm April and you're listening to The Labster Podcast. Our host is Dr. SJ Boulton, an educational designer, and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's interactive virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college, and university. This podcast is our space to share time with you and introduce you to a few of the innovative and inspiring educators we meet as we, together, go about our mission of empowering the next generation to change the world.
Welcome to Episode 25. Our special guest on this episode is Dr. Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín, a biology professor, and Associate Director of PRISM, which is the Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a Hispanic-serving institution within the City University of New York.
Increasing opportunities for underrepresented students to succeed in STEM has long been a part of Edgardo's distinguished career, between his experience in developing undergraduate research programs at NYU’s Leadership Alliance, Harvard University's Microbial Sciences Initiative, and his current leadership at PRISM.
We first got to know Edgardo when he began teaching with Labster, and we're proud to say that he was a 2022 winner of the Labster STEM Excellence Award. And with that introduction, let’s get our conversation started. Welcome to the podcast, Edgardo.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:02:19] Good morning. Well, at least good morning over here in New Jersey. And thank you for having me. It's a great pleasure to be here today.
SJ Boulton: [00:02:26] I'm so excited to have you here, Edgardo. it's been too long since we last spoke. After hearing your introduction, I am already full of so many questions, so I'm just going to dive right in.
SJ Boulton: [00:02:37] One part of your bio that really stood out to me is your work as the Associate Director of PRISM at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. And I should probably say for listeners that aren't familiar with it, PRISM is the program for research initiatives in science and math at John Jay College, and it's been recognized as a model for excellence for improving the number of underrepresented students in the STEM pipeline, which is amazing by the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences and CUNY. Yeah, I mean, come on, how can you top that? Really. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the prison program and what you do there.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:03:18] Of course. So PRISM was founded around 17 years ago at John Jay. And the goal was to expose our students to the practice of science outside of the classroom. John Jay traditionally had a really bad record of retaining science students. Our main majors are related to criminal justice, of course, so our majors in science are forensic science, toxicology, molecular biology. We like to say it is forensic science is how we evaluate evidence, toxicology is what they use to kill you, and molecular biology is figuring out who the baby daddy is!
SJ Boulton: [00:03:59] I love it. As a pharmacologist, this resonates.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:04:04] And because of the increase in exposure in popular culture to the scientific aspects of criminal justice, we became quite popular in the nineties, in the late nineties and early 2000s. Our enrollment went through the roof and but we were barely graduating any students. We noticed two things. First, there was a group of students that came in and either changed majors or dropped out after the first semester. And then there were a group of students that were able to survive that first year and then struggle with the second-year curriculum, which includes organic chemistry, which is a traditional, very much a survival or fail course.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:04:51] And so, although there were several curricular changes happening at the same time, we focused on 'how do we make sure that these students that are able to survive then go on to actually graduate, and then go on to actually find employment?'. And particularly, 'can we guide them to potential career professional careers in STEM?' And this part precedes me, I started at John Jay in 2014. So the program was founded as a small undergrad research program. And that alone made a big difference in the class of 2007, our first class. We only had five students, out of which all five are pursuing doctoral degrees.
SJ Boulton: [00:05:38] Oh, wow.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:05:39] One of them is a faculty member of John Jay.
SJ Boulton: [00:05:42] Amazing, I love it when that happens.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:05:43] I love it too. And since then, we have continued just that exposure to research allows students to see themselves as professionals in the field more than just being students.
SJ Boulton: [00:06:00] Yeah.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:06:01] So that caused a big change. And my boss and the founder of the program, which is Dr. Anthony Carpi, published a study looking at what was it cause of that change in motivation and what he found was that students that come from populations that are more expected in science tend to apply to programs like ours because they're planning to pursue postgraduate programs. Latinos and African-Americans and Native Americans in particular are a little bit more shy about approaching.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:06:40] So we go and recruit them. And what we found is that it was the experience of having a research mentor or being in a lab that allowed them to see themselves as practitioners and seeing, 'hey, this is not just me being interested in science. I can do this. I can do this for a living'.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:06:59] Being exposed to other professionals in STEM, meeting other doctoral recipients, meeting alumni that we regularly bring back to campus to talk about their experience to our students, really made that shift.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:07:12] And around that time I started, and my goal was to expand on that and increase the number of students participating in research but also provide professional development activities, particularly to freshmen and sophomores, first and second-year students, so that they start feeling as members of the community before they even start taking the advanced classes.
SJ Boulton: [00:07:37] What a great like route into it. That's really cool. I wonder - it's so interesting to hear you say, you know, folks, especially minority folks that are not willing to come and not that are not willing, but are less likely to come and make that initial contact, so make that approach, and you have to go out recruit. Was it enough to kind of talk about research to get them in or was there something that really caught their attention? What was it that made those people that typically didn't want to engage or find it difficult to engage, what was it that pulled them in?
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:08:12] Well, we have several strategies that we use. For a while, we had materials in Spanish. We profiled our students in a publication that we called Undergrad Research Chronicle, which can be found in our website. So students could publish their research abstract there, their photo, a little bit of their biography, so that other future students can see themselves in there.
SJ Boulton: [00:08:38] Yes I see that!
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:08:40] We also are very big advocates of meeting the student where they are. The City University of New York educates the children of New York. New York is a big melting pot, although the big melting pot might not have worked everywhere, it certainly does work in the city. And so we have this big diversity of students and we tried to figure out 'who are they and what do they need?'.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:09:11] One of the things that we particularly know is that around 50% of the student population at CUNY ends up having to work at some point. I'm sorry, and I'm mixing up the stats. It's 90% of students at CUNY have a job at some point during their education and 50% of them at some point work full time.
SJ Boulton: [00:09:34] Wow.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:09:34] So because of that, we have been using financial incentives. I mean, it's not a livable salary, but at least we make them see that we recognize the value of their time, that we know that they have responsibilities that they need to attend to. So we provide them with that. We provide them, if they go to a scientific conference, we cover the whole thing. We also provide their faculty mentors with funds to publish. So right now, about one-third of our students at some point, at least I believe, is up to five years after they graduate, they will end up with a peer-reviewed publication.
SJ Boulton: [00:10:12] And that's fantastic. What a nice feather in the cap for going into the scientific industry.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:10:18] Most certainly. And a lot of the comments that I have gotten from deans and other representative of graduate programs is that they see that our students come in more prepared to write and communicate their science and come in already having gone through that experience. So that is one of the reasons that graduate programs - even though we're not a STEM-centric school, we are a minority-serving institution, we're a public institution, we're a medium-sized institution - they seek us out. They come to recruit at our school. And I'm talking, you know, heavy hitters, R1 institutions across the U.S.
SJ Boulton: [00:10:58] Wow. I wonder, can I ask a little about that publication piece? I see so much value, thinking back to my own experience as a student and then as an educator. Having those opportunities to really put undergraduate work on a platform. And both is an attractant for people that might be interested in studying, but also to really help people feel the full ownership of their education, to me, is hugely important. And with your students often being with English as a second language, how do they find that experience of publishing? Do they tend to publish in their native tongue or do they publish in English? How do you manage that?
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:11:35] Oh, well, they publish in normal peer-reviewed journals, and science, as you know, is mostly in English. Most of our students are, we have both students from various diasporas from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and then also second and third-generation immigrants in the city. So not everyone necessarily has English as a second language.
SJ Boulton: [00:12:06] Okay.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:12:08] But at John Jay per se and through CUNY, we do have plenty of resources to help those students succeed or at least improve on their basic, there is a system in place to make sure that they take those remedial English classes before they really start. What we have found is we have a couple of traditions in our program. One of them is on your first semester, with your mentor, you're going to write a short research proposal that is going to define 'what is your project?'
SJ Boulton: [00:12:40] Ah, cool.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:12:40] 'Why is it needed? Like, I like to tell them, just take a big step. At the end, tell me, 'why do you think this is going to change the world?' Because we can get focused on 'I'm studying this particular protein or this specific reaction', but that reaction and that and that protein are part of a bigger system. And that system is part of even bigger systems. So if a student is just studying how to modify opioids by using various recombinant proteins, really what they're doing is lowering the level of detection, the minimum level of detection of opioids to help solve criminal cases.
SJ Boulton: [00:13:28] Of course, all of this is in the context of criminal science as well, because of the nature of the college as well. I love this very much.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:13:37] I have so many of these stories. One of our labs, the one that I told you about previously, is the lab of Dr. Marta Concheiro-Guisan, and she's one of our forensic toxicologists. We also have this organic chemist, her name is Dr. Gloria Proni, and she is developing, she's using henna to develop a new fingerprinting reagent that would be able to detect fingerprints on paper. The problem with the current methods is that they tend to erase whatever was on the paper. So you sacrifice part of the evidence to get the fingerprint. So right now - and all of these, with our undergraduate students - they're actually developing this ink that fluoresces when in contact with amino acids and doesn't erase the content of documents.
SJ Boulton: [00:14:26] Oh! See the context for this is absolutely astounding. Oh, cool. Do you know what? We have podcasts like this where sometimes I'm like, I want to go back and do all of these cool things. I love that your students have this opportunity to contextualize those, sometimes what can feel very niche and very specific parts of scientific research into such immediately applicable scenarios. For example, a research project on Parkinson's disease or on a protein or tau or something like that, you can do all of that research, go for the detection, but the actual implementation of something might never happen. You know that it's got context for a disease state, but you might never be able to see how your work ultimately impacts that endpoint. But these things are potential opportunities for you to revolutionize the way that criminal justice is done. Like suddenly you double the amount of evidence that you've got if you don't have to discard that the paper to get the fingerprint, right?.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:15:27] Oh, very much so. And I work with this amazing group of faculty members that, we are a relatively small department, we combine all the sciences together in just one Department of Sciences. So we have toxicologists, chemists, biologists, and that has led to some quite interesting interdisciplinary work. We have the ballistics person that worked with the physicist. We have a team of organic chemist, a toxicologist and a cancer biologist looking at not just how some anti-cancer drugs work and but potentially combining various functional groups onto those drugs to potentially use them as new drugs. And it's a lot of innovative research because of the way that we run our research.
SJ Boulton: [00:16:25] Absolutely fantastic. I must say, of all of the people that I've had the pleasure of podcasting with, you seem to have such empathy with the student experience, not just on an educational level, but on an emotional level and also on a track level, motivational level. And I have to ask, is it your own student experience has shaped your approach to teaching at higher ed or how how has that happened for you, if it has?
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:16:55] Not directly my mother, but is mostly the story of my mother. I see my mother in all my students here. The reason is my mother grew up in Puerto Rico, in the mountains of Puerto Rico, in a little area called Castañer. It's one of the poorest neighborhoods in the poorest town in Puerto Rico. She grew up in, technically, in the fifties, but with an outhouse, with housing insecurity, a lot of family drama, alcohol and drug abuse in her environment. But and she's the only person in her family, at least from her generation, that not just finished high school, but went to college.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:17:39] And she arrived in college not knowing anything. No one even told her she could apply to financial aid. She moved in first in a nunnery because she couldn't afford to live anywhere else. And they took her in and she worked throughout her whole college experience. She first got an associate's degree and went on to as an elementary teacher. Then, actually, when she was pregnant with me, she was finishing her bachelor's degree. So I've been. I've been in college since in utero.
SJ Boulton: [00:18:12] I love it. Excellent, you were born for this.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:18:18] When I was in grade school, when she was finishing her master's, I used to go to class with her. I would be sometimes a little bit like, okay, why are all these adults talking, what is this Professor? I want to learn! Come on. I've always been a nerd. I admit it. But my mother is the one - that experience for her, not having that help, having to discover everything for the first time - it really shows me what is the experience like for the first generation student, the first person in your family to go through, which is around 45 to 60%, depending on the class of our students.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:19:00] So we tried to again meet the students where they are, make sure they have someone in the office that they feel comfortable with, maybe that they speak the language, they look like them, that they can come in. And if they're running into trouble with a professor or with someone in the college, I always say 'try to solve it yourself, if you can't, then call me and then I'll, you know, I'll do what I do and I will help you figure out how to navigate it'. So having that experience through my mother of seeing what first-generation students need, and then there is a little bit of my story.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:19:38] I went to, I majored in microbiology, and in my orientation week in college, on the last morning, it was on a Friday morning, I went to an event only because they were offering free breakfast, I admit it. It was about the research programs. And I went there. I got my bagel, I sat down, I started to listen and they were talking about, you know, if you are accepted into this program, you'll get a stipend, which I'm like, okay, that's nice. I get financial aid, but that extra money would have been nice. And then they told us , every year we take all our students to one or two conferences, and at that moment, that's when I said, 'Hey, wait a minute, I get paid and you pay for me to travel to go present my work? Okay, what do I do?'
SJ Boulton: [00:20:20] Sign me up!
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:20:20] Like, what do I do? So I from that moment, then I decided, you know what? I'm going to be part of these programs. What do I need to do to be the best candidate possible?
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:20:31] And I've also used that approach with our students that plan to attend post-graduate programs. It's not just about doing research and getting good grades. Think from the point of view of the admissions officials who're going to be reading your application. What are they looking for? What is it that they look for in a potential applicant? And how can you take advantage of all the opportunities we have here for you to develop those skills? And if we don't have it, tell us, and we'll figure it out some way that we can potentially do it.
SJ Boulton: [00:21:01] You seem to foster a really open dialog with your students, and whenever there's something that they're missing, that you're making opportunities for them. And that is something that we don't see everywhere, I love it.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:21:12] We get great feedback from them and they are very open. They tell us what works and what doesn't and it has shaped the way that we run the undergrad research program.
SJ Boulton: [00:21:27] So what kind of impact do you see for STEM students who've had the opportunity to learn from faculty members, like you said, who look like them, who have a similar identity and lived experience? Is there something that really stands out for you in terms of impact for them?
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:21:42] Well, as I mentioned, first and foremost, they get to see themselves as practitioners in the field instead of just student. So that fosters a sense of belonging and a sense of identity as scientists. And they see themselves, you know, 'I can do this'. This is something that when I was a freshman and I saw those more senior students and faculty members, they look like so big as they look. So it's such a foreign concept.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:22:06] Most of our students tell us 'before I started college, I never met a scientist. I'm just here because I like science. I like learning. I like learning new things about the natural world'. And a lot of them because it's forensic science, grew up watching TV shows like Forensic Files or CSI, and we're everything right. And so they come in and they, by doing the experience - by first and foremost being selected - the program is competitive. We used to back 15, 16 years ago, we used to beg students because it was a new experience at the college. Now we have around 20 spots that open. The program is around 45 students, around 20 graduate every year. So we recruit around 20 students. We get 50, 60 student applicants.
SJ Boulton: [00:22:53] All right. Okay. Wow. That's a lot.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:22:56] No, and this is comparing when in the nineties, as I mentioned, we had 200, 300 students applying and starting as freshmen and maybe we graduated five. Now, we have enough students to have a program that's 45 students, and that's just less than half of the students at that level.
SJ Boulton: [00:23:16] Wow. Okay. That I mean, that must be getting so much equity in order to go on. And you seeing these people graduate and then go on to jobs. What are their destinations like?
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:23:25] Yes. So we regularly track and very much pursue the ones that go on to do up on graduate programs. And these we have, I believe starting last year, we hit 75 of our alumni either have been admitted, are completing, or have graduated from the programs. We have by now several that have gone into tenure track positions. We have quite a few that are going into industry. I have a graduate, I met her as a freshman in my first year at John Jay and she's about to finish her Ph.D. at Princeton University. And she is although she still loves science, she realizes that she has a passion for writing, and now she's about to publish her first science fiction book.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:24:47] Do you know, Edgardo, I feel like I could talk to you for four days. You've got so many stories, and I just want to hear more of them. April, can we have him back, please, come on, let's have some more. I've really enjoyed talking with you. And I know that were starting to come up to time right now. And I just want to say huge thanks for sharing all of your stories with us today, but I do like to wrap up every episode with one last slightly bigger question.
SJ Boulton: [00:25:09] So this is my question for you. We've talked a lot about STEM students, but I do wonder, what about support for that faculty? I mean, I'm talking to you. You have so many stories. You've come from such, you've got such an amazing route to where you are. But I wonder if you've got any practical suggestions for how higher education administrators can support diverse and underrepresented STEM faculty members to really succeed as well?
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:25:37] Very much so. A lot of pressure and a lot of work is poured on faculty members that come from underrepresented backgrounds because they're seeing that not only do they have to be excellent at what they do, they also have to fix the problem of representation. Yes, it should not just be their job, but most importantly, if they decide and it's not their responsibility, some of them do it. Some of them, you know, want to focus on their science, and that's okay too. But if they decide to do it, that has to count towards their professional development.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:26:12] As a faculty member, you should be taking into account, it should be taken into account in their tenure and the tenure requirements that if they do this job, it actually counts. It is time that they spend. They could have spent at writing grants or in the lab, whether you spend it doing this job that is expected of them. So because it's expected of them, it should count towards your tenure, their tenure at work.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:26:39] And then finally. I mean, this is an even bigger problem, but something that I see is a lot of faculty members coming from underrepresented populations tend to be adjuncts or temporary work in academia. That's a big problem. I don't have a fix unless someone wants to me give me a whole lot of money. Yeah, I don't have a fix, but, it needs, there needs to be a little bit more parity.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:27:07] And there needs to be, particularly when you're looking for faculty members and tenure track faculty members, you should be looking among the faculty members that are part of your tenure, I'm sorry, part of your adjunct faculty members. Just because they went into adjunt doesn't mean that they can't cut it. It doesn't mean that they are less than. And actually they bring in a lot to teaching because that's what they were focusing on during that period.
SJ Boulton: [00:27:35] Absolutely. They're the ones that are maybe thinking of the fresh new ideas. How can I do better? How can I differentiate? How can I work with what do more with what we have? It's so interesting to hear you highlight this idea of almost invisible work that people are doing in order to promote diversity and inclusion within the workplace, where people feel that it's their responsibility to do it. And I'm with you 100%. That needs to be recognized. It needs to be space needs to be made for it, too. It's no, it's not fair to ask people to do that in addition to all of the work that they've already got going on, because that just spreads people too thin, right?
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:28:09] Very much.
SJ Boulton: [00:28:11] Amazing. What a fantastic answer to that question. And I really hope that this is something that is on administrators' minds, being able to not just support the students, which, to be fair, we see so many great initiatives for, but also making sure that those faculty members are there and able to do the good work that they're already doing without becoming burned out and and disenfranchised with the work itself.
April: [00:28:50] So Dr. Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Thank you for joining us today. It's been a really fascinating and useful conversation.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:29:01] It's been a pleasure. Labster has been instrumental in my teaching, and although I thought at the beginning, oh, this is something I'll use through the pandemic, I have adapted it to now being part of my regular teaching. I'm very excited to be talking to SJ, getting to talk to someone that actually develops these tools is actually quite cool. So I think happy to come back, but I want to flip the conversation. I would love to know how SJ gets her inspiration to develop these tools?
SJ Boulton: [00:29:31] Oh, it's always a pleasure to connect with somebody that appreciates the art. For me it's talking to people like you and truly understanding what it is the students need, where the struggle is, but also how we can, you know, help educators be even more productive with the time that they have and even more, free up the time for the activities that, you know, you need, you need time for. So if Labster can be something to help you optimize the hours that you have in the week, then to me, that's a massive win, if it helps you do the things that you do best.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín: [00:30:05] Well, thank you very much.
April: [30:06] Thank you very much for sharing time with us in this episode, Dr. Edgardo Sanabria-Valentin. And thank you for listening.
If you liked this episode, we hope you’ll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast.
We invite you to send us your feedback at April at Labster dot com. Until next time, keep teaching and keep learning!
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