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blazing the trail group of students

Blazing the Trail

The Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars Program’s
inaugural class forges new paths to innovation


By Shelley Catalano


“The Simons STEM Scholars Program is helping Stony Brook lead the next generation in scientific research while ensuring that the future of STEM research and education is inclusive, equitable, and collaborative. No university is better suited to host a program like this. We have an outstanding record of educating students from underrepresented backgrounds…and an outstanding record in STEM research and teaching. With this program, we can ensure that the STEM fields are open to the best and brightest scholars from every community, from every background, bringing much-needed diverse perspectives to science and innovation.”
— President McInnis

Imagine developing an innovative way for diabetics to receive their insulin or contributing to cutting-edge cancer research with your latest experiment. These are impressive accomplishments for any scientist, but what may be more surprising is these feats were achieved by some of Stony Brook’s newest students while they were still in high school.

Kehinde Cole, Brady Brick, Erwin Cabrera, Alix Dehayem, Natasha McCombs and Marie-Line Lubin.

From left to right: Kehinde Cole, Brady Brick, Erwin Cabrera, Alix Dehayem, Natasha McCombs and Marie-Line Lubin.

On June 25, 2023, Stony Brook welcomed its inaugural class of Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars, students who not only have demonstrated a passion for science, but who are also driven to use their aptitude to help others. And now, thanks to the Simons Foundation’s generous support and partnership in building this innovative program, these students will be bringing their talents and determination to Stony Brook, creating change in our community and, eventually, the world.

These students’ unique voices will be key to fueling innovation. According to a January 2023 National Science Foundation report, it’s been well-documented that diverse teams are more likely to generate groundbreaking ideas and discoveries — something needed now more than ever in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

To create those teams, higher education must cultivate students with a passion for STEM and a desire to think out of the box. To that end, SBU announced in May 2022 that it was partnering with the Simons Foundation to create the Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars Program. A $56.6 million initiative, the program would provide full financial support for up to 50 exceptional students a year to begin their STEM education at Stony Brook and set them on a PhD/MD pathway. While the mission of the program is to help advance trainees from historically underrepresented backgrounds, it isn’t a requirement to be from one of those groups. The program encourages students from all backgrounds who are passionate about making a difference to apply.

The Simons STEM Scholars Program will offer these high-achieving students academic and career advising, networking opportunities, stipends for program-related travel and study abroad opportunities. Most of all, it provides them with access to some of the leading researchers in the world, including scientists at Stony Brook, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) and the Flatiron Institute.    

“If we hope to address the increasingly complex challenges our world is facing, we must develop scientists and mathematicians who are reflective of our diverse world and who bring diversity of thought and perspective,” said David Spergel, a theoretical astrophysicist and president of the Simons Foundation. “That’s why the Foundation is making this investment in broadening the scientific workforce through the Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars Program.”

“Just imagine, once we get this fully built out, we will have 200 Future STEM leaders on our campus, forging new paths and setting the stage for future generations of students,” said SBU President Maurie McInnis. “Clearly, this is so much more than just an academic program. This is a mission; a mission to build a community of high achieving scholars and leaders to unleash their potential to invest in the diversity of perspectives that fuels innovation and discovery.”

 


On the Fast Track
To develop the program — which is modeled after the renowned Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) — the university tapped Erwin Cabrera, a researcher and higher education administrator, as its inaugural executive director.

Cabrera, who was a Meyerhoff Scholar, brings a unique perspective to his role. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from UMBC and later a PhD in pathology from New York University. He started at SBU in October 2022 and hit the ground running, hiring staff and advisors to begin constructing the framework for the first year, and recruiting students for the first class, known as the “S1s,” with their June 2023 arrival only months away.

“It’s been chaotic and exciting,” Cabrera said of the creation of the program, “because I tell the team and the students, we’re a part of building this legacy. We’re here to nurture and develop students and help them toward the PhD and MD pathway, not just as scientists but as people. It’s really important to understand that science progresses because of humanity.

“We’re in startup mode and so we have to think beyond ourselves,” he continued. “I tell that to our scholars all the time: We’re remaking and doing things that will change the world, and to think beyond what we know today. Right now, we have our S1s, our first class, but I want them and our staff to think about what will happen with the S20s and S30s, to make sure that this is really held in perpetuity.”

The program’s initial hires include Brady Brick, who joined shortly after Cabrera as the recruitment, special events and family outreach coordinator; and Natasha McCombs as the Summer Bridge coordinator and advisor, who started in January 2023. Cabrera noted that in building the team, “We understand the complexity of academia, but also understand the complexity of academia from a lens of people of color. And that’s pivotal in raising up this next generation. And so, there’s really no program like it across the United States that has leadership like us,” he said.

Together, the team worked in a short window of a few months to recruit and review 800 applicants, narrowing them down to 150 for two selection weekends of interviews before settling on the first group that would become the historic inaugural class.

Students needed to demonstrate a strong interest in research, leadership and a commitment to community. While grades and other academic accomplishments were important, those ultimately weren’t the deciding factors as to who would join the program.

“These students came to us with maximum AP credits, high-level research experience and exceptional test scores,” said Cabrera. “But those aren’t the only things that will get them to the finish line. During selection weekend, we threw away their transcript and looked at who was in front of us. Are they entrenched in the work? What spirit do they have? Are they coachable? To be an honors student at this university is not just about accolades — it is about who you are and your humanity.”

After the selection weekend was completed and the final decisions were made, Cabrera personally informed each student they had been accepted into the program. Students were asked to join him on a Zoom call where he surprised them with the news.

Aviya Boyce

Aviya Boyce during one of the team building exercises during Summer Bridge.

“It was very unexpected because I thought I was going to another aspect of the interview process,” said Aviya Boyce, a dual major in biology and psychology from South Jamaica, Queens. “So, when Dr. Cabrera told me ‘You got it,’ I was dumbfounded because I didn’t think I would get in. But getting that news about having my education paid for and having the supporting people behind me and having a cohort behind me, it was like wow! That’s four years that I’m set up for to help me get my MD and my PhD. What an opportunity.”

“Being part of the first cohort is amazing, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility to bear,” said Jeprika Rodriguez, a biochemistry major from Clifton, New Jersey. “But I know that along with my cohort members that we’re in it together, and that we’ll be able to meet the expectations and set the path forward.”

Daniel Almonte, a physics major from New Rochelle, New York, said that being part of the first cohort is special. “I envisioned this program being something very, very renowned in the future because of all the great things that will happen as a result of it,” he said. “I think all the scholars that go through this program are going to be very successful. There’s not many programs like this, which support students that come from underrepresented communities and help them into the world of research, especially ones offering a full-ride scholarship.”

For Nic Beckles, a marine vertebrate biology major from Brooklyn, New York, it is “very inspiring and inspirational to be a part of the first cohort. I know that in the future, people are going to look back and say, ‘wow, he was a Simons STEM Scholar. That’s pretty impressive,’” Beckles said. “I feel like it shows something to my family as well, because when I was first told the news that I got in, most of them broke down crying. They were so proud and that makes me want to inspire others, too.”

While the first cohort is setting the standard, they are also helping to shape the program for the future. The inaugural class was kept to 29 students to better pilot the program. Future Simons STEM Scholars will be inducted in groups of 50 and the program will adapt as needed.

“I feel like the most useful guinea pig that the world has ever known,” said Sean Andrade, a mathematics major from Elmont, New York, and the youngest member of the cohort (and one of the youngest students ever to be a fully matriculated SBU resident student). “We’re the cohort who is still getting all of the kinks in the system out. And I’m honestly really excited to be that because, for example, I’m 16 and there have been a lot of small things that the staff and I had to deal with as a result of that. And what I’m excited about is to have that process be smoother for anyone coming in after me. So, I’m happy to kind of take the bumps on the road if it means that the people after me can have an easier time.”

Summertime Studies

Daniel Almonte

Daniel Almonte works on an activity in the cohort’s weekly class.

To help smooth their journey into college, the Scholars attended a six-week Summer Bridge Program where they lived on campus and had time to bond as a cohort. They arrived on June 25, mere days after graduating high school. Students took two classes (writing and math) and participated in community building, research, mental health talks and off-campus trips to visit scientists at the Flatiron Institute, CSHL and BNL. They had fun day trips, too, taking in a Mets game, a behind-the-scenes tour of the American Museum of Natural History and to Six Flags in New Jersey.

“The best part of bridge was being together with the cohort,” said Boyce. “In making this transition to college, I was with about 20 other kids, so we were all in the same position. If one person needed something, there was always someone in the cohort that you could go to.”

“Over Summer Bridge, we met a lot of scientists and learned that there are so many unique tracks you can follow and just having that passion to research whatever you want is what drives them,” added Rodriguez. “I learned that dreams create endless possibilities. Whatever you put your mind to and if you come to it with that passion to research your interest, that is what is going to drive you to excellence.”

“Summer Bridge taught me leadership skills,” Almonte added. “I learned so much more about the PhD pathway. Summer Bridge allowed me to feel really prepared coming into the fall semester and it became really easy. I think that’s a great advantage that we have compared to other college students.

“We also went to the Flatiron Institute to see a day of presentations from their scientists,” he continued. “And I was lucky enough to have lunch with Dr. Spergel, and I was able to talk to him about the research he has done as I want to do similar research in the future. He is one of my main inspirations, not only as part of the Simons Foundation, which was responsible for this program, but as an incredible physicist.”

Facilitating Connections
Helping the scholars connect with faculty who match their interest is one of the program’s best advantages. Recent additions to the team — Neuroscientist Kehinde Cole, PhD, as senior research specialist and Physicist Alix Dehayem, PhD, as assistant director — are working to facilitate matching and tracking faculty and research mentors. Because of their connections, many S1s were able to begin research their first semester, some with several of SBU’s most distinguished faculty. Boyce is in the lab of Gilbert J. Rahme, Department of Pharmacological Sciences, who is using epigenetics to study how to repress the genes relating to brain tumors. Meanwhile, during the fall semester, Almonte joined an observational astronomy lab with Ken Lanzetta, Department of Physics and Astronomy, who leads the team that recently built the Condor Array Telescope to look for exoplanets around white dwarf stars.

Rodriguez, who has long been interested in neuroscience and endocrinology, is a research assistant in the lab of Alfredo Fontanini, chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. There she studies the motor cortex and its relationship to the gustatory cortex — or more simply, taste and its effect on motor abilities. “Right now, I’m doing comprehensive training with one of the graduate students. I was able to get a position in the lab because Dr. Cabrera had a connection with Dr. Fontanini because they’re both in the neuroscience department.”  

Erwin Cabrera and student cohorts

Cabrera joins the first cohort as they receive their official S1 shirts.

Cabrera said he sees fostering connections as a key step in the scholars’ development. “We know that for you to go to the PhD pathway, you have to have consistent research over time. But if you don’t know somebody in that space, you may not reach your full potential.

“And so for us, it really is about harnessing their full potential with our academic advisors working with faculty across campus,” he continued. “When we think about people who are successful, we really don’t think about the connections that exist. Especially with students from underrepresented backgrounds, you may not have the connection. All we’re really doing is providing that connection. The students have all of the intelligence, and putting those two together is just magic.”

As the S1s’ first year comes to an end, there’s no rest for them or their advisors. The team is helping the S1s line up their first summer research projects while they finalize the selections for the incoming S2s. The second cohort will arrive for their Summer Bridge on June 29.

Where does Cabrera see the program in five years? “Hopefully, a majority of our S1s are pursuing their doctoral degrees. At that point, our S5s will be on campus and our S1s would have served as their summer counselors,” he said. “As we look toward the future, again, it’s about legacy. And so, in five years, my hope is that the S1s have made an impact on this campus that you and I wouldn’t be able to even fathom what they would be able to do.”

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Learn more about the Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars program by visiting the program’s website.