This month’s issue of Connections highlights many innovative science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs offered by Jesuit institutions. In recent years, STEM programs have proliferated across all institutions of higher education in the United States, given the increasing demand for highly skilled employees and students seeking careers in occupations like computer science and engineering (source: U.S. Department of Education). Historically, Jesuits have been leaders in these areas of study, and have required students to take multiple science courses as part of the core curriculum. Now, several of our schools are developing scholarship programs to support students (especially minorities) to pursue degrees in STEM fields; you will learn more about such programs in this issue.

Many Jesuits have pursued careers as scientists including, notably, Pope Francis, who was trained as a chemist in Argentina. Our own former president of AJCU, Rev. Charles L. Currie, S.J., holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, and completed post-doctoral training at Cambridge before teaching at Georgetown University. Other notable Jesuits who are especially active in the sciences today include Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., who directs the Vatican Observatory, and Rev. George Coyne, S.J., who holds the Endowed McDevitt Chair in Physics at Le Moyne College.

Next year, audiences across the country will have the opportunity to learn about the life of another notable Jesuit scientist, Rev. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., who will be featured in The Evolution of Teilhard de Chardin, a documentary by Frank Frost Productions, LLC. Fr. Teilhard de Chardin was a paleontologist who led a team that discovered the Peking Man in China; a philosopher whose writings on the environment would later be cited by Pope Francis in the encyclical, Laudato si’; and a priest whose love for God was made manifest through his care for the earth. Following its airing on PBS, The Evolution of Teilhard de Chardin will serve as an educational tool for students across the country, and introduce new audiences to an extraordinary leader in science and technology. For more information on the film, please visit If you are interested in helping to bring this documentary to public television through a donation, please click here.

Today, Jesuit colleges and universities have much to be proud of as leaders in STEM fields, producing future scientists, engineers, IT experts and mathematicians. But beyond their technical and academic abilities, our students are learning how to balance faith with reason, and to always seek justice and wisdom. May our schools continue to create and foster strong STEM programs…the next Pope Francis just might be in their classrooms!

All the best,

Deanna I. Howes
Director of Communications, AJCU

By Cynthia A. Littlefield, Vice President for Federal Relations, AJCU

2016: What Can We Anticipate Politically?  

Without a doubt, 2016 is already proving to be one unpredictable year in politics. With almost one third of the Senate, the entire House, and the Presidency up for election, the decisions made by voters will ultimately determine higher education policy, even if there is little debate about higher education this year.

Clearly, there are differences between Republicans and Democrats on higher education policy. In broad strokes, the Republican-proposed initiatives tend toward consolidations, e.g. cutting programs or eliminating the United States Department of Education altogether. In the presidential races, there is limited input on higher education from the front-runners, Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). The Democratic front-runners, Secretary Hilary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-NH), have both raised concerns about the cost of college, but Sanders differs by suggesting free tuition for public two-year and four-year institutions (which would be quite difficult to achieve financially). Secretary Clinton has offered a more watered-down approach to tuition assistance for those in need. Both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have spoken about eliminating student debt and expressed concern over college costs.

Beyond the presidential level, the House of Representatives will, in all likelihood, remain controlled by the Republican Party primarily because of redistricting by state legislators. The Senate is up for grabs, as there are 10 Democratic seats and 24 Republican seats up for reelection. Should the Republicans continue controlling the Senate, more efforts to have “one grant-one loan” as a goal for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) will continue to progress and efforts to increase student aid programs will be challenged. If Democrats take back the Senate, there will be more concerted efforts to increase student aid and preserve campus-based aid programs. A recent example of bipartisanship was seen recently in the extension of the Perkins loan program this past December.

Budget for FY17: On February 9th, the President will release his final budget for FY17. Initial reports indicate his desire to reestablish the year-round Pell grants and to reward Pell grant students an extra $300 for taking 15 hours of semester credits. These suggestions, if adopted, could incentivize students to finish their programs earlier and graduate on time. Rewarding colleges for increasing Pell grant students with higher graduation rates is another goal. These suggestions would have to be authorized before any funding was decided, yet they establish priorities for HEA.

HEA Reauthorization: With only 170 legislative calendar days in 2016, passing large pieces of legislation will be difficult. That said, both leaders of Congress have said that focusing on the normal order of business for FY17 appropriations is their biggest goal this year. Staff from both the Senate HELP Committee and House Education and Workforce Committee have been working on HEA legislative language. It would not be too much of a stretch to suggest that we could see legislative language at some point this year, but as of this writing, there is no sense of timing. Whatever changes and desires this election year will bring, AJCU will continue to work to protect student aid programs for the neediest of students and protect institutions from burdensome regulations that prove too costly.

By Nick Alexopulos, Associate Director of Media Relations & Social Media, Loyola University Maryland

Mili Shah, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics at Loyola University Maryland (Photo by Loyola University Maryland)

Mili Shah, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics at Loyola University Maryland (Photo by Loyola University Maryland)

An interdisciplinary group of sciences faculty at Loyola University Maryland has been awarded a $565,495 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a scholarship and mentoring program to recruit and graduate academically talented low-income students pursuing a degree in computer science, physics, mathematics, or statistics. Through the new CPaMS Scholars Program, six students from the class of 2020—arriving in fall 2016—and six students from the following class of 2021 will receive up to $10,000 annually during their four undergraduate years at Loyola.

Recruiting efforts began in summer 2015 with a heavy focus on local students from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Digital Harbor High School, and other public schools in Baltimore City, MD, though any student who meets the program’s academic and financial aid requirements is eligible to apply. The goal is for half of the CPaMS Scholars to be either women or from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups, with at least 25 percent from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups regardless of gender.

‘CPaMS’ refers to computer science, physics, mathematics, and statistics. Nationally, just 16 percent of college students who earn an undergraduate degree in these fields are minorities, while only one quarter are women. At Loyola, those numbers are 7 percent and 38 percent.

“It’s incredibly important to have diversity in any discipline because it brings creative ideas and different perspectives that are invaluable to the field. This is what STEM is based on—you need to be thinking outside of the box,” says Mili Shah, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics at Loyola and the grant’s principal investigator (PI). 

Shah and her colleagues strategically selected the CPaMS subset of STEM disciplines. STEM encompasses all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines; the CPaMS are more narrow, but more naturally connected, offering students opportunities for interdisciplinary integration of experiential learning. A physics project, for example, deals with real-life applications that are explained by mathematical models and visualized by computer programs. “Our approach puts everything together in a way that’s fun and exciting for the Scholars,” says Shah.

The CPaMS Scholars will be organized into two cohorts, one for each year, to build a strong sense of community as they move together through a sequence of classes and activities at Loyola. They will have personalized access to coursework, colloquia, field trips, summer research, and internships in all STEM fields. They will also have access to a variety of academic and professional mentors and advisors.

There are ambitious goals tied to the program’s comprehensive structure—goals in addition to increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups in CPaMS disciplines. Shah and her colleagues hope 90 percent of CPaMS Scholars choose to engage in an internship or research experience, which could be Loyola’s popular Hauber Summer Research Fellowship Program. They are striving not only for retention, but also for more than 80 percent of the CPaMS Scholars to graduate with a degree in any STEM field. Students who follow this path will be better prepared to pursue extraordinarily competitive—and lucrative—jobs, many of them not far from Loyola. Maryland has the highest concentration of STEM jobs in the country, and Baltimore is among the top-10 U.S. cities for highest demand of STEM knowledge.

“There are so many career opportunities in the Baltimore/Washington region for people in STEM,” says Shah. “Yet for students in underrepresented groups, they often don’t see people who look like them succeed in STEM, so it doesn’t even occur to them that STEM is a possibility. We’re taking the lead to change that perception.”

Shah’s Loyola faculty colleagues who are developing and implementing the CPaMS Scholars program are:

•    Dawn Lawrie, Ph.D., professor and chair of computer science (co-PI)
•    Mary Lowe, Ph.D., professor of physics (co-PI)
•    Lisa Oberbroeckling, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics (co-PI)
•    Megan Olsen, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science
•    Christopher Morrell, Ph.D., professor of statistics
•    Roberta Sabin, Ph.D., professor emeritus of computer science

For more information about the CPaMS Scholars Program, contact Mili Shah at

By Timothy Linn, Public Relations Specialist, Rockhurst University

Mandi Sonnenberg, Ed.D., associate professor of education at Rockhurst University, leads an activity during the STEAM camp for girls at Gould Evans STEAM Studio in Kansas City, MO (Photo by Rockhurst University)

Mandi Sonnenberg, Ed.D., associate professor of education at Rockhurst University, leads an activity during the STEAM camp for girls at Gould Evans STEAM Studio in Kansas City, MO (Photo by Rockhurst University)

The same subjects that have been taught in schools for generations — reading, writing and arithmetic — are still the building blocks of most young students’ educations.

But as technology and innovation continue to shape the world, educators have stressed the importance of the STEM curriculum — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as they prepare students for future success.

Enter the STEAM Studio, a partnership between Rockhurst University’s education department and Kansas City-based architecture firm Gould Evans. Launched in September 2014, the studio, based in a loft in Gould Evans’ Kansas City, MO office, serves as the home for a host of innovative programming for K-12 students centered on the principles of STEAM, which adds “art” and design thinking principles to the STEM curriculum to provide students with an innovative edge.

Mandi Sonnenberg, Ed.D., associate professor of education at Rockhurst University, said the idea for the studio grew from conversations she had with Gould Evans as part of a committee helping design the classrooms in the University’s new academic building, Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Hall, as well as a capstone group she was advising from the University’s Helzberg School of Management that was researching the “next century classroom.”

She says, “That evolved into this concept of a space where we could actually try out some of these ideas and techniques. Gould Evans was a great partner, offering us the use of their loft space, the furniture and the educational resources where we could launch the studio.”

From the beginning, Sonnenberg said the project has also been a service learning opportunity for Rockhurst University education students, as well as a way to apply less-than-traditional approaches to teaching.

“The Rockhurst students have stepped up to volunteer,” she says. “They really run the STEAM Studio — they want to be there and they want to help with the students. It’s great for them from a service perspective, but it also gives them some freedom to put into practice what they’re learning about new ways to instruct.”

On a given week, the STEAM Studio is part laboratory, part playhouse and a pinch of classroom. Activities have had students designing custom 3-D-printed prosthetic hands for the organization, Enabling the Future; augmenting the coding for mobile applications; and learning the science behind fashion.

Research shows that women are less likely to pursue STEAM-related paths than their male counterparts; another special STEAM Studio program is specifically tailored for young girls, to encourage their exploration of STEAM programs.

Sonnenberg says that over the course of its first year, well over 500 primary- and secondary-age students have attended at least one of STEAM Studio’s programs. That includes students with a range of ability levels from area parochial, public and charter schools, as well as homeless shelters.

The need to bolster STEAM-related education is clear — according to the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), only 44 percent of 2013 U.S. high school students were ready for college-level courses in mathematics, and only 36 percent were considered ready for college-level science courses. 

Even if they enter college prepared for the courses, many students abandon their STEM degree paths — 38 percent of those students who enter college pursuing a STEM-related degree finish with a non-STEM degree.

At the same time, research shows that STEAM-related expertise is increasingly in demand from employers. According to the NMSI, job opportunities in computer programming alone, a field that requires the high-level thinking and mathematics skills from STEAM-based education, were expected to grow by 45 percent between 2008 and 2018.

Sonnenberg says that preparing today’s students for those careers starts with presenting the curriculum in a way that appeals to them. The hands-on nature of STEAM Studio offers a more approachable way to learn the concepts of empirical learning and critical thinking and how those concepts can be applied across the STEAM disciplines.

“It boils down to real-world application,” she says. “That’s where the design thinking comes in. In all of the STEAM Studio’s activities, we ask the students to take their projects through the brainstorming, troubleshooting, and prototyping stages before they produce a final product. Those are skills that are crucial in any number of different careers.”

The response to the STEAM Studio has been amazing, Sonnenberg says, and has opened up new partnerships and opportunities for growth. Soon, Rockhurst High School students will begin working with STEAM Studio students in a new robotics curriculum and research initiative. The project also recently raised enough funds to purchase its own bus to make transportation to and from the studio more accessible and affordable. As Rockhurst University students and others continue to step forward and lead the project, Sonnenberg is confident in STEAM Studio’s future in preparing the innovative leaders of tomorrow.

By Michael J. Quinn and Jean M. Jacoby, Seattle University

Michael J. Quinn, Ph.D. (Photo by Seattle University)

Michael J. Quinn, Ph.D. (Photo by Seattle University)

Two guiding documents challenge Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States to engage with the world through service: [1] The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities’ self-evaluation instrument asks every American Jesuit college and university to examine how well it “seeks to insert itself into the world on the side of the poor, the marginalized, and those seeking justice”; [2] Ex Corde Ecclesiae describes “an institutional commitment to the service of others” as a fundamental characteristic of a Catholic university, and urges universities to “help promote development in emerging nations.” A Jesuit university with vibrant, outward-looking STEM programs is well equipped to respond positively to these challenges.

At Seattle University (SU), we have been engaged in international humanitarian efforts for more than a decade. These efforts have involved a broad cross-section of the University community with faculty, staff and student participants. One of the pioneers was chemistry professor Sue Jackels, who learned about the plight of coffee farmers in Nicaragua during a meeting of ISJACHEM, the International Jesuit Association of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Universities and Schools, in 2001. A worldwide glut of coffee beans had caused prices to fall dramatically. Responding to the urgent request of a Nicaraguan colleague at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), Managua, Dr. Jackels resolved to do something to help the farmers improve the quality of their beans so that they could be sold at a higher price.

Jean M. Jacoby, Ph.D. (Photo by Seattle University)

Jean M. Jacoby, Ph.D. (Photo by Seattle University)

Seattle University funded her sabbatical research into the coffee fermentation process in collaboration with Catholic Relief Services Nicaragua, UCA Managua, and a nascent cooperative of poor Nicaraguan coffee producers. With subsequent funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Jackels conducted field work and lab analysis at both Seattle University and UCA Managua to develop a kit for coffee fermentation assessment to help Nicaraguan farmers. Building upon Dr. Jackels’ work, SU civil and environmental engineering professor Michael Marsolek advised a student team in 2007-08 that designed a coffee mill and wastewater treatment facility for a remote location. The mill allows local coffee farmers to improve fermentation and protects streams from the acidic wastewater runoff. Most recently, Dr. Jackels expanded her project by collaborating with Dr. Quan Le and students in SU’s Albers School of Business and Economics to successfully import and sell the cooperative’s Fair Trade organic coffee, which is now of excellent quality.

Our international humanitarian activities have spanned the world, including projects in the Caribbean islands (Jamaica, Haiti), Africa (Zambia, Kenya), and Asia (Thailand), that have fostered deeply satisfying and productive relationships with local communities. Over the past decade, SU civil and environmental engineering professor Phillip Thompson has led nine trips to Huai Nam Kun, Thailand, where student/faculty teams have constructed a school dormitory, built a footbridge, installed drinking water treatment systems, and taught English and music to local students. As one project is completed, others are percolating and implemented in successive years, demonstrating Seattle University’s commitment not only to specific communities but also to the dissemination and application of new and appropriate tools to support developing communities in other regions.

Our first project in Africa was to install a water wheel-driven spiral pump on the Zambezi River, giving villagers in Zambia access to water without having to step into the crocodile-infested river. Later projects focused on using sustainable energy to provide Zambian villagers with access to electricity. In August 2014, a team of students, faculty, villagers, and contractors installed a 5-kilowatt charging station in Muhuru Bay, Kenya, powered by two wind turbines and twelve solar panels. This project won the $25,000 grand prize in the Connecting Professional Practice and Education competition sponsored by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.

Seattle University’s humanitarian work in STEM is not limited to international settings:

Students experience meaningful work, which is truly interdisciplinary and based on teamwork in often challenging situations. These experiences have transformed the lives of some of our students in dramatic ways. Here are two examples. Andrew Mewborn is a 2014 electrical engineering graduate who participated in the Muhuru Bay electrification project. Andrew has decided to commit his career to social entrepreneurship for the purpose of electrification in the developing world. Another example is Sonya Milonova, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 2009. As a student, Sonya worked on a storm water diversion project for an elementary school in Nicaragua and implemented the Zambian waterwheel project. She completed a master’s degree and now works as a research fellow for the Harvard School of Public Health, where she has helped to develop ultraviolet germicidal irradiation systems for air disinfection and has continued her work in Africa.

Our commitment to humanitarian projects is demonstrated by the educational opportunities we provide our students. Many of the projects have been conducted as part of the Seattle University Project Center, which provides externally sponsored projects for senior capstone courses required for all engineering, computer science, and environmental science students. Other students are engaged in humanitarian projects through University partnerships with organizations such as Engineers for a Sustainable World and Kilowatts for Humanity. The rewards of such work are rich and life-changing, reflecting Seattle University’s values in action.

Michael J. Quinn, Ph.D. is Dean and Jean M. Jacoby, Ph.D. is Associate Dean of the College of Science and Engineering at Seattle University.

[1] Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. Some Characteristics of Jesuit Colleges and Universities: A Self-evaluation Instrument (2013):
[2] Apostolic Constitution of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on Catholic Universities (Ex Corde Ecclesiae) (1990):

By Dr. Gary Kuleck and Dr. Shuvra Das, University of Detroit Mercy

UDM BUILD Scholar Freshmen in the Research Laboratory (Photo by University of Detroit Mercy)

UDM BUILD Scholar Freshmen in the Research Laboratory (Photo by University of Detroit Mercy)

Urban Jesuit colleges and universities have centuries-long traditions of providing training, education and resources to local communities with less access. This has encouraged students with talent and drive, who are minorities or come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, to graduate from college and become leaders in professional disciplines in which they have been traditionally underrepresented.

Since its founding in 1877, the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) has embraced its location within and commitment to Detroit, MI. The UDM community has remained actively engaged in Detroit through public service, undergraduate and professional education, and service learning courses. In recent times, our mission and history have become intertwined with Detroit’s renaissance through community revitalization services and enhanced educational opportunities for STEM professional career preparation. It is in this spirit that we describe ongoing funded projects in the College of Engineering and Science (E&S) that will impact communities in a proud, resurgent Detroit.

Removing the cultural, financial and academic barriers to success from the rigorous training required in STEM disciplines is necessary, but not sufficient to ensure that students complete their undergraduate and graduate education. Engaging students in experiential learning significantly improves retention and graduation rates. Since a close faculty-student interaction is central to UDM’s mission and vision, we have enthusiastically embraced transformational opportunities represented by the National Institutes of Health [NIH] Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Program. UDM serves as the primary partner in a new consortium with several institutions of higher learning in Detroit (Wayne State University, Marygrove College, and the Wayne County Community College District). In 2014, the Consortium was awarded a $21.2 million NIH BUILD grant to create the ReBUILDetroit Program. This five-year program will increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in biomedical research, and will graduate 500 students with advanced biomedical degrees to enter into a strong, vibrant Southeast Michigan health sciences workforce. ReBUILDetroit will overcome barriers for students through the creation of large inter-campus learning communities; providing intentional mentoring; creating structured, authentic research opportunities for students beginning in their freshman year; and developing a pipeline to and through graduate school. In its first year of existence, 53 BUILD scholars have been engaged with research preparation and will enter laboratories this summer for their first extended research opportunity. 

UDM’s BUILD Student Scholars experience community engagement as part of their Jesuit education. The grant strengthens deep faculty-student interactions in the laboratory and classrooms, and helps faculty become more attuned to working with students of color. Student college acculturation includes 7-weeks of pre-summer programming (e.g. inter-campus student activities, service learning projects, and events that unify incoming freshmen) exposing them to college-life and the rigors of undergraduate research while they engage with faculty mentors. This also initiates year-long, intensive multi-tiered mentoring from students (peer, near-peer), faculty, staff, and successful alumni, who serve as role models and further student engagement. These experiences have been designed to encourage student perseverance on a research career path. Thus far, the program is transforming the campus and student climate. We are excited to witness the students’ continued development as they progress in their professional career tracks.



UDM’s engineering program, established in 1911, is ranked among the U.S. News and World Report’s top 100 engineering programs from non-Ph.D. granting institutions. Undergraduate majors are offered in Mechanical, Civil, Electrical, Software and Robotics and Mechatronics Systems Engineering (RMSE).

UDM’s engineering program is closely tied to the city, local communities and industries, and attracts students from Detroit and the surrounding Metro area. It serves many first-generation students and participation from women and minorities is above the national average. The engineering program combines a strong mix of theory and practice with adaptability by addressing ever-changing needs. These values are reflected through the interdisciplinary RMSEP, curriculum-wide integration of innovation and entrepreneurship concepts, and mandatory co-op programming.

Robotics and Mechatronics Systems Engineering Program (RMSEP)
Industrial partners have expressed the need for engineers educated in principles and applications of mechatronics and robotics. Mechatronics involves synergistic product design with integration of mechanical devices, smart electronics and optimized control software. Robots are the best examples, but mechatronic applications are common in many sectors ranging from consumer appliances to healthcare and defense.

The 2012 RMSEP launch at UDM culminated longstanding efforts by students and faculty. Key courses were developed through National Science Foundation (NSF) support: UDM faculty received three NSF grants between 1999 and 2003 to create foundational curriculum and infrastructure. These grants led to the development of new courses in Mechatronics and Robotics; robust offerings in pre-college programs; new project implementation; and, of course, RMSEP.

In 2015, RMSEP received an NSF grant to support educating and graduating low-income students (especially women and minorities) into a well-trained STEM workforce. This $600,000 grant, along with UDM scholarships, will fund undergraduate education for 16 students. The students will be mentored by engineering alumni, participate in special cohort-based classes and advising, take company field trips, and participate in co-ops.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship
In 2005, UDM became a founding member of the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN), which offers funding for universities to start entrepreneurial / educational programs. There was always a need for entrepreneurship education at UDM; KEEN provided resources to galvanize faculty and administrative action. Since 2005, UDM has received $700,000 from KEEN to spur further development, including a minor and five new courses dealing with service, entrepreneurship, innovation and venture creation.

One example of KEEN-sponsored programming is an engineering senior capstone course at UDM, which involved multi-disciplinary teams designing and delivering devices addressing disabled clients’ needs. This program resulted in the development of unique and innovative products for the disabled; First Lady Michelle Obama mentioned this successful program in a 2012 Veteran’s Administration speech.

Engineering Co-ops
One full year of co-op is required of engineering students at UDM; co-ops are extremely valuable to gain on-the-job experience and network for full-time employment. The University’s co-op coordinator leverages long-standing employer relationships and, working closely with students, faculty and administrators, ensures engineering students secure appropriate co-op assignments. Student and employer satisfaction level is consistently high.  

We believe that experiential learning in Jesuit education is fundamental for students to develop as professionals with leadership potential.

Dr. Gary Kuleck is Professor and Dean and Dr. Shuvra Das is Mechanical Engineering Professor in the College of Engineering and Science at the University of Detroit Mercy.

By Arvin Temkar, Content Writer / Copy Editor, University of San Francisco

Aparna Venkatesan, chair of USF's physics and astronomy department (Photo: University of San Francisco)

Aparna Venkatesan, chair of USF’s physics and astronomy department (Photo: University of San Francisco)

Galaxy Quest: Exploring outer space and making science more inclusive for women and minorities

Aparna Venkatesan was the very first woman to graduate from Cornell University’s astronomy department. That was in 1993. Two decades later, women and minorities still face an uphill battle for science-related careers, says Venkatesan, now chair of the University of San Francisco’s (USF) physics and astronomy department. 

“There’s this feeling of incredible isolation if you’re a woman or a minority in the hard sciences,” Venkatesan says. “There’s a feeling of not belonging. Even today, sadly, it’s not uncommon at a typical university to see only one woman in a physics class.” 

Venkatesan is fostering a different kind of environment at USF. That’s why one of her priorities is taking time to meet individually with physics and astronomy students — particularly women and minorities — to help them through challenges. By inviting students for lunchtime chats, she creates the kind of mentoring connections that have served her well throughout her career. She’s particularly proud of her relationships with her research students, many of whom go on to pursue advanced degrees in science. 

“In my student days, a few professors or colleagues suggested I wasn’t cut out for this or that I should leave the field,” says Venkatesan. “But I’ve also had these gems along my path — mentors, colleagues, and grant officers who made the time to support and encourage me. I want to do the same for our students who don’t fit the typical mold of the physics or astronomy major.”

It’s a commitment she’s taken on in various roles: She’s a council member of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for the Status of Minorities, and she volunteers at San Francisco public schools, presenting on science and astronomy to young students.

“We discuss everything from falling into a black hole, to gravitational lensing, to meeting life forms on other planets,” she says. “These kids are our community treasure and gardens. I love planting the seeds of appreciating science and promoting their view of themselves as potential scientists and observers of the universe.”

Venkatesan came to USF in 2006 with the goal of expanding its astronomy and astrophysics programs. There was only one astronomy class at the time. With the help of other USF professors, she created new minors in astronomy and astrophysics, and developed popular classes like Planetary Astronomy — a class that draws hundreds of students with diverse majors each year.

“Astronomy is always a mega-popular science with a big ‘wow’ factor, especially these days,” she says. “This class’ popularity has been helped by the huge amount of data coming in on extra-solar planets, the searches for Earth-like worlds, and the possibility of life elsewhere.”

With support from a National Science Foundation grant, she’ll soon take a handful of students to Puerto Rico, to conduct research on the world’s largest radio telescope. She and her students, along with students from a consortium of 19 other colleges, will conduct a census of nearby galaxies. 

And through it all shines one of USF’s Jesuit values: diversity. 

“I hope that women in science can have a supportive society and environment in which they can each excel and flourish in their own unique way,” Venkatesan says. “And that one day the scientific community will be too busy appreciating each person’s science to draw attention to their gender or race.”

The Bay Area is home to some of the nation’s top biotech companies — a major advantage for USF students, who have many opportunities to connect with potential employers (Photo: University of San Francisco)

The Bay Area is home to some of the nation’s top biotech companies — a major advantage for USF students, who have many opportunities to connect with potential employers (Photo: University of San Francisco)

The Business of Biotech: USF’s professional science master’s program offers students the best of two worlds

The University of San Francisco’s (USF) interdisciplinary Professional Science Master’s Program in Biotechnology boasts a nearly 100 percent job placement rate. That’s in part because it blends hard science with business — a combination that’s equipping graduates to work in all aspects of the Bay Area’s booming biotech scene. 

“I’m still impressed by the fact that the program integrates such disparate areas of learning into a single, comprehensive two-year master’s program,” says Casey Keyes ’15, a recent graduate who works as a lab engineer at South San Francisco startup, Distributed Bio.

The two-year program graduated its first cohort in spring 2014. The current cohort includes 22 students. Thanks to the program’s interdisciplinary scope, graduates are now working in areas as varied as business development, discovery research, scientific writing and publishing, and regulatory affairs.

“Being in a startup, you can’t really separate the business from what you’re doing,” says Keyes. “You’re constantly working with clients, large pharma companies, as well as other small companies. The two concepts — business and biology — are married.”

“There’s much more to students’ success than just the science,” says Christina Tzagarakis-Foster, associate dean for the sciences at USF and interim director of the biotech program. “The students need to be exposed to various aspects of the business of biotech, whether it is how venture capital works, or the FDA [U.S. Food & Drug Administration] approval process, or why a company should work with a contract research organization. All of these things are important to understand in order to contribute to the success of a biotech company.”

The Bay Area is home to some of the nation’s top biotech companies — a major advantage for USF students, who have many opportunities to connect with potential employers. Instead of a master’s thesis, professional science master’s in biotechnology students complete internships with companies like Genentech and AmGen.

“We’re at a point where biotech companies are contacting us, wanting to partner with our students — even as early as their first year,” says Tzagarakis-Foster.

J Labs, an innovation sector of Johnson and Johnson, recently set up a “speed dating” internship-matching program for USF students, by inviting companies to connect with students at their research space in South San Francisco. Twelve companies participated, including Distributed Bio. 

All of the program’s students complete an academic global immersion with Professor Moira Gunn, who is also the host of NPR’s Tech Nation. This unique opportunity allows students to travel to countries like Puerto Rico and England and see the biotech industry outside of the Bay Area.

The most valuable aspect of the experience for Keyes, who traveled to Quebec, was the opportunity to visit a range of businesses, from startups to multi-national companies. 

“I learned what the needs and goals of companies are at various stages of growth, and this informed my decision to join a startup rather than a more established biotech company,” she says. “I wanted to start at the early stage — where I can have the most influence and also learn about this industry.”

For more information on the Professional Science Master’s Program in Biotechnology at USF, please click here.

The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) sponsors over 30 conferences (affinity groups) within the AJCU Network. The conferences provide a forum for the exchange of ideas, information and best practices; support the professional development of their members; and present opportunities for AJCU representatives to discuss collaboration and challenges in Jesuit higher education. Most of the AJCU conferences host meetings at least once a year, and many of them facilitate regular communication among members through listservs. The following conferences and affiliated programs will meet in winter / spring 2016:

Pastoral, Theological and Ministerial Education
Chair: Dr. Colt Anderson, Fordham University
(718) 817-4800,
February 10-11, 2016, Oblate Renewal Center, San Antonio, TX (held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association of Graduate Programs in Ministry)

Education Conference
President: Dr. Joshua Smith, Loyola University Maryland
(410) 617-5310,
February 24, 2016, Mirage Hotel, Las Vegas, NV (held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education)

Honors Program Directors
Chair: Dr. Naomi Yavneh Klos, Loyola University New Orleans
(504) 864-7330,
February 26-27, 2016, Gonzaga University

Jesuit Student Personnel Administrators (JASPA)
President: Jeffrey Gray, Fordham University
(718) 817-4752,
March 12, 2016, Indianapolis, IN (specific location TBD; held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education)

Campus Ministry Directors
Chair: Mary Sue Callan-Farley, Marquette University
(414) 288-0524,
March 15-18, 2016, Franciscan Retreat Center, Phoenix, AZ

Registrars in Jesuit Education (CORe)
Chair: Michael Rachal, Loyola University New Orleans
(504) 865-2486,
March 19, 2016, Phoenix, AZ (specific location TBD; held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers)

Chief Academic Officers
Chair: Dr. Stephen Freedman, Fordham University
(718) 817-3043,
April 9, 2016, Loyola University Chicago

Facilities, Public Safety & Sustainability
Chair: Lindsey Kalkbrenner, Santa Clara University
(408) 554-2369,
April 10-13, 2016, Santa Clara University

Jesuit Graduate Enrollment Professionals (JGAP)
President: Linda Horisk, Fordham University
(212) 636-6401,
April 12-13, 2016, Omni Nashville, TN (held in conjunction with the annual meeting of The Association for Graduate Enrollment Management)

Library Deans
Chair: Janet Lee, Regis University
(303) 458-3556,
April 17-20, 2016, Regis University

Jesuit Conference on Rhetoric & Composition (JCRC)
President: Ann Green, Saint Joseph’s University
(610) 660-1889,
April 19, 2016, Houston, TX (specific location TBD; held in conjunction with the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication)

AJCU Marketing & Communications Summit
Host: Doug Ruschman, Xavier University
(513) 745-3185,
April 20-22, 2016, Xavier University

Chief Finance Officers
Chair: Randall D. Gentzler, Loyola University Maryland
(410) 617-2345,
April 27-29, 2016, Loyola University Maryland

Conference on Information Technology Management (CITM)
President: Patrick Frontiera, Loyola Marymount University
(310) 568-6219,
May 22-25, 2016, John Carroll University

The Jesuit Leadership Seminar
Director: Jeanne Fielding Lord, Georgetown University
(202) 687-2912,
June 14-17, 2016, Loyola University Chicago