Science with the stars


Inclusiveness and diversity take center stage, as one PBS director passes the torch to the next

How many kids grow up aspiring to be experimental psychologists, or scientists of any stripe? It’s a question that PBS professor Preston Garraghty has contemplated for the past 16 years as director of STARS, Science, Technology and Research Scholars Program in the IU College of Arts and Sciences.

Each year about a dozen, science-oriented high school seniors along with several IU freshmen are admitted to STARS. From the outset the STARS program places them in a lab and provides professional guidance throughout their college career. It also puts them amidst a cohort of other STARS students across the College, who get together several times a year to share their research, give talks, and participate in bi-annual poster sessions including a spring symposium where selected students give talks about their work.

However, as Garraghty knows all too well, though many kids aspire to be doctors, it is rare to find aspiring scientists among high school students, especially those from families and communities with few resources. As Garraghty’s new successor in the program, PBS professor Heather Bradshaw explains, doctors are visible in popular culture in a way that scientists are not.” Think “Grey’s Anatomy,” “ER,” a certain long-running daytime soap, and numerous others.

What many kids see growing up is that if you want to be smart and know stuff and have an exciting life, then you want to be a doctor. You don’t see the ER shows about scientists.

And yet, in keeping with its name, STARS gives its student scientists a kind of celebrity status: it rolls out the red carpet and provides access to the world of scientific research and investigation that is not always easy to come by, either at IU or other universities.

As former STARS student Chip Smith, who was accepted into the program in its first year in 1998, confirms, “It was certainly the only program of its type that I had heard about, and it was absolutely influential in my decision to attend IUB. It firmly established my desire to pursue a career in science, and needless to say, it was the foundation for my ambition to pursue my current career.”

Now, he says, “I work as a laboratory animal veterinarian with a specialization in nonhuman primate medicine. It is a job that I love, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Were it not for my experience in the IU STARS program, it is doubtful that I would have followed the path that led me to this career.”

Likewise several years later for Rishi Sethia, now a third-year medical student at Ohio State University, STARS provided the opportunity “to delve deeper into the scientific process and get a more in-depth perspective on neuroscience. It helped me go beyond what you can learn in a classroom.”

By far the most impactful thing was getting to do research, but also important was the faculty’s investment in making sure students are happy and are learning.

Former STARS student Rishi Sethia

And for 2016 graduate Kishan Sangani as well, “By far the most impactful thing was getting to do research, but also important was the faculty’s investment in making sure students are happy and are learning. Knowing other students in the program was also cool. You always had people to talk to about your experience.”

The experience in fact led to his current career path: “I came in wanting to go to medical school and left wanting to do research as well.” He is now beginning a joint M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago.

Toward diversity and inclusiveness

To increase the diversity of students who find their way into the program and broaden the number of fields from which students can be accepted have been high among Garraghty’s goals. Garraghty, for example, first opened up the program to freshmen in order to recruit them from introductory courses, including his own, in fields that they may not have known anything about in high school; and he created summer research scholarships for which STARS student can apply, so that those who need financial assistance over the summer can still pursue their research.

Bradshaw has not only fully embraced these goals, but is already taking them to the next level. To attract more minority and other underrepresented students, Bradshaw has also stepped up recruiting practices, particularly with respect to minority students in Indiana schools and communities where the program is less known.

Building on Garraghty’s initiatives, Bradshaw has gotten summer research money, a generous commitment for the next two years from the College of Arts and Sciences that is specifically for minority students. She has spoken with the Hudson-Holland Scholars Program for high-achieving, underrepresented minorities, as well as targeted the Groups program to recruit several freshmen to STARS. She has gained placement for other students in the labs of PBS professors Olaf Sporns, Brian O’Donnell and Franco Pestilli, and has recruited one of her own students, an honors student from Mitchell, Indiana, into the program as well.

Her “long-term hope,” she says, is that these initial steps will have a domino effect: “If students have a positive experience in STARS, they will then get the word back to their communities. In this way we can recruit more and more students outside the wealthiest regions.”

A broad umbrella

Like Garraghty, too, Bradshaw rejects efforts to limit STARS to students in so-called hard sciences. Instead she embraces “the broad umbrella which STARS allows for its students. So much of what all of us do are descriptive studies, taking data sets and finding patterns, whether in neuroscience or sociology. I think the idea that some of us do science and others don’t, is not helpful. It’s simply dividing.” The only limits to who can be admitted are the boundaries of the College itself. Currently the program has included students from fields as varied as anthropology, biology, chemistry, psychological and brain sciences, physics, speech and hearing sciences, linguistics and biochemistry.

No doubt having directors since its third year who are faculty members in the psychological and brain sciences department is helpful in developing this inclusiveness. As a hub science, psychological and brain sciences is well-positioned among the sciences, both highly collaborative with researchers in other fields and one of the most frequently cited fields by researchers across the spectrum.

As director of the program since its third year, Garraghty sees in Bradshaw a perfect successor, someone with “the ideal training background. She is a psychologist and a neuroscientist and has a unique set of experiences that permit her to appreciate the program.”

But as broad as PBS is, STARS is even broader. And this is part of what its students ultimately come to understand and appreciate. Participating in a common poster session each semester and choosing the topics for talks from among their own abstracts each spring, STARS students also learn to communicate across disciplines and take on a common identity as scientists.

“That’s the point,” says Bradshaw. “We’re scientists, not neurobiologists or chemists or neuroscientists. It’s all just really cool science.”

Which perhaps means that the “ER” for scientists is not so far off after all.