“Programs like ASPIRES are game changers,” said Maura Mast, Ph.D., dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill. “Through this type of support, women—and others who are underrepresented in STEM—see themselves as belonging, see themselves as mathematicians and scientists, and see themselves as successful.”
Through the NSF-funded University program, first-year students receive annual scholarships, which range from $1,000 to $10,000, for their four years at Fordham; guidance in and out of the lab; and funding for their undergraduate research. Scholarships for their first year of study are funded by NSF; the remaining three years, the scholarships are funded by Fordham. In total, the grant will sponsor four student cohorts. The first will serve as mentors to incoming scholars.
Last fall, the University was awarded $1 million to be granted over five years for ASPIRES, which stands for Achievement in STEM through a Program of Immersive Research Experience and Support. Awarded by the NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Program, the grant is intended to help increase the number of college students pursuing careers in STEM, especially those who come from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the field.
“In the analysis that was done for the grant, a disproportionate number of Fordham STEM majors or students intending to pursue a STEM major leave STEM or don’t go on to STEM fields,” said Robert H. Beer, Ph.D., associate dean for STEM and pre-health education at Fordham College at Rose Hill. “The idea behind the grant was that if we put this program in place freshman year, students that might be at the risk of leaving a STEM field or major would stay.”
To qualify for the program, students must indicate an interest in a STEM major on their college applications, demonstrate strong academic performance in high school, and show financial need.
“This is really early exposure and access to faculty, research, and the idea of research,” said Christie-Belle Garcia, assistant dean for student support and success. “The way the program is set up is to give them an upper hand in being able to access these [resources].”
Early Exposure to Lab Life
ASPIRES not only pays for part of students’ tuition, but also funds their future research projects, offers a year-long research seminar that shows students how to create their own research projects, and hosts a six-day Summer Bridge Program that introduces students to the campus before the semester starts.
From Aug. 18 to 23, this year’s ASPIRES students explored the Rose Hill campus and toured the chemistry, biology, and physics departments. They saw several lab experiments performed by professors and student research assistants, ranging in subject from crystals to cell mitosis to electrons. The students were also treated to meals in Manhattan and the Bronx, as well as activities like zip lining at the Bronx Zoo and navigating an escape room in the city.
“In the first week of the students being here, they were exposed to faculty in a small group setting,” Garcia said. “Throughout the course of the year, the goal is to provide them with the necessary skills to be able to participate in research by the end of their first year of college.”
The First Cohort
Twelve undergraduates were selected from approximately 400 candidates, said Beer.
One student, Sonola Burjja, is originally from Europe. As a high school student in Albania, she said she placed among the top three students in several biology state olympiads. But it wasn’t until she moved to the U.S. in her senior year of high school that she was able to conduct complex science experiments in her classes.
“In Albania, we didn’t have much research or opportunity,” said Burrja, a biology major on the pre-med track. “[At Fordham] I’ve already scheduled an appointment with one of the deans involved in research to talk about different opportunities. I’d like to do something that is related to people’s lives … to the medical field.”
Most of the ASPIRES students live on campus. But a few students commute from the Bronx, like Dogunhe Trawally, who rides the Bx15 to the Rose Hill campus several times a week. He said he’s taking five courses this semester: one in English composition, one in Islamic history, one in sociology, and two in computer science.
“Technology is this evolving theme that’s part of our lives,” said Trawally, a computer science major. “So I thought, what other way to make a change in the world than to do something that people are already into, that has changed so many lives?”
Another ASPIRES student, Ora Kalaj, said she’s fascinated by the chemical makeup of cosmetic products. Last summer, she interned at a French skincare company called Biologique Recherche, where she not only learned about the marketing side of the business but also the technical side.
“There was a seminar where the executives of the company came to talk to the estheticians-in-training about the chemical makeup of the products,” said Kalaj, adding that the experience helped narrow her interest in the field of chemistry.
In the future, she said she envisions herself as a chemist or chemical engineer. But for now, Kalaj—a chemistry major from Eastchester, New York—is concentrating on the next four years.
“I’m really excited to participate in scientific research because I never did anything like that in high school,” she said. “I’m excited to work with people who are as passionate as I am.”