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Faculty Awards

ASSIST Team receives President’s Distinguished Achievement Award in Innovation and Impact

July 28, 2021
ASSIST Team receives President’s Distinguished Achievement Award in Innovation and Impact

Photo of ASSIST Team Researchers. From left to right: Kenneth Walker, Jeffrey Hutchinson, Gwen Young, Janis K. Bush, Sue Hum, Juliet Ray, and Amaury Nora.

The Advancing and Strengthening Science Identity through Systematic Training (ASSIST) program team has won the President’s Distinguished Achievement Award for Innovation and Impact (I2). The ASSIST program cultivates vibrant STEM leaders from underrepresented minority (URM) students, helping them overcome barriers to achieving advanced degrees in the sciences while simultaneously advancing UTSA’s mission of inclusive excellence.

“Four years ago, the ASSIST grant team collaboration began as an innovative, multi-disciplinary effort to transform the way underrepresented minority STEM students were trained as scientists," says Associate Professor of Instruction in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology and ASSIST Team Lead, Gwen Young. 

"Although there were many defining moments along the way, this award and the accompanying recognition from our peers is certainly the most humbling. Our team is an example that diversity of thought and experience among team members leads to success." 

The ASSIST team brings together researchers from the College of Sciences, the College of Liberal and Fine Arts, and the College of Education and Human Development, in addition to an external member from a federal agency. The team takes this uniquely multidisciplinary approach to address challenges that inhibit graduate students, particularly URM graduate students, from pursuing a thesis-option graduate degree in Environmental Science and Ecology. The thesis option makes students more competitive in the workforce, as it demonstrates the students’ ability to conduct independent research and employ communication skills. 

To address this need, the ASSIST team provides systematic training through three key interventions: writing-to-learn pedagogy, the development of public science communication skills, and holistic mentoring by faculty, staff, and peers. This multifaceted approach helps provide the most comprehensive development of the students’ science research identity. 

Each intervention is led by an ASSIST team member and intervention area expert, while Dr. Amelia King-Kostelac, a recent doctoral graduate from the College of Education and Human Development’s Educational Leadership program, serves as the research project manager. 

Leading the writing-to-learn pedagogy intervention is ASSIST team member and Associate Professor Sue Hum in the Department of English. Hum partners with Environmental Science and Ecology faculty to integrate best practices in writing pedagogy to support their course content. In addition, advanced graduate students, selected to serve as Writing Fellows, support those faculty. 

ASSIST team member and Assistant Professor Kenneth Walker, also in the Department of English, leads the public science communication intervention through the public communication training program. This training provides graduate students with experience in creatively and effectively communicating their subject across multiple forms of media and to various audiences.

The holistic mentoring intervention is led by ASSIST team member, Professor of Higher Education and Co-Director of the Center for Research and Policy and Education, Amaury Nora. Holistic mentoring shifts the responsibility of mentoring from the traditional sole professor to a network of mentors, role models, and support from both the UTSA community and hiring agencies. Holistic mentoring helps URM students in addressing imposter syndrome and institutional barriers. 

Dr. Juliet Ray, director of grant services at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, brings a background in project management and significant experience facilitating and managing grant-funded projects. Her research is focused on evaluation of factors impacting the success of underrepresented students.

Having URM mentors as well as mentors from the agencies who hire Environmental Science and Ecology graduate students is an important component of the ASSIST project, as URM students who feel represented and supported are more likely to succeed. ASSIST team member and Former Assistant Director for Science with the United States Fish and Wildlife service, Benjamin Tuggle, provides mentorship to help build this new generation of scientists. 

From the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology, both Young and fellow ASSIST team member and Assistant Professor Jeffrey Hutchinson, work to integrate the interventions into their own graduate courses and share these interventions with other faculty. By combining their disciplinary leadership with student-centered mentoring approaches, both members will help diversify environmental science and ecology graduate education. 

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Innovations in Graduation Education Program and with further support from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the ASSIST project targets the needs and challenges faced by URM students so that they can become successful leaders in the STEM workforce. It is the hope of the team that their multidisciplinary model can be applied to other degrees within UTSA and at other Hispanic-Serving Institutions. 

“The overarching goal of the team is to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who obtain advanced degrees in the sciences,” says Janis K. Bush, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology. “Because this team works on a program-based model that is transferable to other disciplines and universities and may revolutionize how STEM graduate students are developed; the impact will be felt at the individual (student), institution (University), and community (local, state, and national) level.”

The Innovation and Impact (I-squared) Award recognizes creative and innovative projects of high impact that originate from UTSA and benefit students or others in the public or private sector. The award is meant for faculty-led teams that have developed particularly large-scale or scalable projects that contribute to UTSA’s mission.