Independent Public Mission Schools

Saint Peter’s University: Surge for STEM

West Campus is a hub of innovation these days. While undergraduate researchers on one floor test molecular reactions to synthetically produce a renewable source of energy, a team on another studies the transgenerational effects of chemicals found in plastics. Inside labs and classrooms, students construct mathematical models to further neuroscience research, design independent experiments in biology, physics, psychology and other disciplines and co-author academic papers on their findings with the faculty members who advise them.

It’s an exciting time for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and research at Saint Peter’s, and the University’s capacity to educate and train the next generation of scientists, medical professionals, computer scientists and other in-demand occupations is set to expand. Last fall, President Eugene J. Cornacchia, Ph.D., unveiled SURGE (STEM Undergraduate Retention Graduation and Empowerment), a $3.8 million initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education through the Hispanic-Serving Institutions STEM Program. The five-year grant—the largest awarded in University history—will support high-impact teaching and learning, establish and renovate facilities and provide more resources and opportunities for student success.

“Increasing the number of STEM graduates has become critical to the future workforce and economy of the United States, particularly in the state of New Jersey,” said Dr. Cornacchia. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), New Jersey ranks in the top quarter nationally for STEM employment, yet places 36th for the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded.

With an enrollment of STEM majors that tops the national average by more than seven points and a tradition of serving Hispanic and low-income students, Saint Peter’s presented a strong case for federal funding. Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department Maryellen Hamilton, Ph.D., noted that the positive outcomes of the Title V grant, awarded to the University by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010, underscored Saint Peter’s commitment to student success. “Reviewers saw how we clearly laid out the need and demonstrated how we could solve the challenge of recruiting and helping more students persist in STEM,” said Dr. Hamilton, who serves as grant project director and co-led the grant application with Special Assistant to the President for Institutional Planning Virginia Bender, Ph.D. ’78.

Spotlight on STEM

Historically, science, technology and math degree programs have attracted significant numbers of students to Saint Peter’s, but those figures have grown even more in recent years. In 2006, 24 percent of undergraduates majored in one of the University’s eight STEM degree programs, which include biochemistry, biology, biotechnology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, physics and psychology. By 2016, nearly 35 percent of undergraduates were pursuing a STEM field, and these disciplines now make up the largest percentage of majors at the University. Dr. Bender attributes the upward trajectory to a number of factors. “There’s certainly been an emphasis in the country on the need for more STEM graduates. At the same time, the students we serve have a greater awareness of the need for strong preparation in math and science.”

SURGE is tailored to support the growth of STEM majors and bolster every component of the pipeline, from outreach to area high schools to opportunities that propel more graduates into STEM-related careers and advanced study.

Assistant Professor of Biology Jeanette Wilmanski, Ph.D. ’00 is spearheading a summer program for local high school students, offering firsthand exposure to the workings of a research laboratory with Saint Peter’s faculty. The goal is to empower and prepare more college-bound students to pursue STEM fields. “We’re trying to eliminate the anxiety, as well as help them understand what is required of STEM majors,” Dr. Wilmanski explained. SURGE is also accessible to STEM majors enrolled in the Dual Admissions Program with Hudson County Community College (HCCC). As students complete their associates degree requirements at HCCC, they can earn college credit toward their bachelor’s degree, gain research experience at Saint Peter’s and have full use of a new STEM Engagement Center funded through the grant.

Construction of the Center, located on the third floor of Pope Hall, is nearing completion. “It will be a very versatile space,” said Dr. Hamilton, noting that the facility uses movable glass dividers to accommodate multiple activities such as group work, tutoring and dedicated STEM advisement. Faculty, students and visiting lecturers will be able to conduct more engaging workshops and presentations with the use of large screen TVs and monitors. With dual-purpose computers, students can run multiple software applications simultaneously and use a large format printer to
prepare poster presentations for academic conferences and symposiums.

Other capacity-building projects for the Jersey City campus are underway. Six science departments have been approved for $135,000 in upgrades to laboratories, including a new cyber security laboratory for the computer science department. A program of loaner laptops, calculators and textbooks is also being initiated to ensure STEM students have the necessary tools to excel. “This will benefit a good proportion of our students,” Dr. Hamilton said, noting that for the spring semester, $15,000 in textbook vouchers were made available to STEM undergraduates who qualified for the program.

“Reviewers saw how we clearly laid out the need and demonstrated how we could solve the challenge of recruiting and helping more students persist in STEM.”

Introducing SURGE Fellowships

Saint Peter’s pipeline to STEM fields includes a new research opportunity for undergraduates, the SURGE Fellowship. The competitive institutional grants are expected to advance University research with stipends and critical learning experiences for students, in addition to providing access to equipment, technology and supplies.

SURGE Fellows will be able to spend more time in the lab,” said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Yosra Badiei, Ph.D. “It’s going to improve the pace of our project and help us get to our results sooner.” For the past three years, Dr. Badiei has involved students in the study of artificial photosynthesis, specifically catalytic reactions using low-cost metals to produce hydrogen, a source of renewable energy. The project, made possible by the George J. Hilsdorf, S.J. Endowment Fund, the Independent College Fund of New Jersey and a partnership with Brookhaven National Laboratory, received an additional boost through SURGE. “We’re getting equipment that will allow us to make materials in the lab,” continued Dr. Badiei. “Before, we depended on Brookhaven National Lab. Now, with the materials in hand, we can involve more students in a more in-depth research experience because they will make the catalysts in-house and test them directly.”

Associate Professor of Mathematics Nickolas Kintos, Ph.D., also includes undergraduates in his research on computational biology and is currently advising SURGE Fellow Madel Liquido ’19 (see profile, page 10). He pointed out the advantages students gain from conducting cutting-edge inquiries still too new to appear in textbooks. “This grant certainly has the potential to advance students and STEM. Whether they go on to graduate school or industry, students
are better able to compete because of the work they are doing outside of the classroom.”

“Once the science goes out there, it will certainly elevate the status of our students,” added Dr. Badiei. “People will see that Saint Peter’s undergraduates can grasp and perform challenging research that graduate students and post-doctoral students are working on. That is something quite exciting for the University.”

University of Distinction

A product of Pathways to Distinction: The Strategic Plan for Saint Peter’s University, SURGE and its impact will be felt long after the grant is completed. “The size of this grant is impressive,” noted Dr. Kintos. “It really is an opportunity to leave a footprint and lasting legacy on the University.”

“Our graduates will be distinguished by a high quality program that is raising the bar for STEM,” said Dr. Bender. “As they make their mark in their careers or in furthering their education, the University, in turn, will become better known for STEM.”

A SURGE Fellow and chemistry major Genesis Renderos ’17 who applied to Saint Peter’s unaware of its many STEM opportunities, agreed. “With the grant and encouragement from faculty, more students will be motivated to go into research, or at least give it a shot,” she said. “Students will see what STEM can do for them.”

Meet SURGE Fellows

Madel Liquido ’19

Not many students describe AP calculus in high school as “one of the most important decisions in my life.” Madel Liquido ’19 does. At Saint Peter’s, her talent and passion for mathematics took off as an
honors student, peer tutor and the only non-business major selected to the Goldman Sachs College Collaborative program, organized with the University’s Center for Career Engagement and Experiential Learning (CEEL). With the guidance of Associate Professor of Mathematics Nickolas Kintos, Ph.D., Liquido will utilize data collected in crabs to formulate, test and interpret simulations of mathematical models that could be predictors for neuroscience research in humans. “I feel very privileged to be a SURGE Fellow,” she said. “The opportunities are here. You just have to take advantage of them.”

Genesis Renderos ’17

Genesis Renderos ’17 discovered her passion and purpose during chemistry lab freshman year. “I seriously loved seeing the change that would occur when you combined ‘chemical A’ with ‘chemical B,’” she recalled. For the past year, Renderos worked with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Yosra Badiei, Ph.D., on a project testing synthetic ways to produce renewable energy. A recipient of the William Nichols Fellowship from the American Chemical Society in 2016, she now leads the undergraduate research team. Following graduation from Saint Peter’s, Renderos will enter Stony Brook University as a fully-funded Ph.D. candidate. She plans to study inorganic chemistry and continue to research sustainable materials development.

Luigy Cordova Burgos ’18
Biology major Luigy Cordova Burgos ’18 entered the University with a plan: medical school. He became interested in laboratory research after attending a presentation on fetal alcohol syndrome given by Assistant Professor of Biology Maria Agapito, Ph.D.
Intrigued, Burgos began investigating the developmental effects of ethanol on worms, for which he received a TriBeta National Honor Society Research Scholarship Foundation grant last fall. His research continues this semester, thanks to the SURGE Fellowship. “There’s great satisfaction in sharing information with the greater biology community,” Burgos said. “It’s an opportunity that is going to help me as an individual and hopefully, as a medical school student.”