Guiding Research Via Innovative PRISM



By Barbara Fischkin

Marcel Roberts entered John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 1998 as a freshman already convinced that research and doctoral degrees were "only for smart people and not on my radar screen." Today Roberts has a Ph.D. in chemistry, a body of work with implications for national security, health and the environment -- and a new position as an assistant professor at John Jay.

How did this happen? During his first year, Roberts was mentored by then assistant professor Anthony Carpi. "He taught me how to do research," the younger professor says. "He taught me how to write papers. He taught me how to get into a Ph.D. program."

MentorBack then Carpi -- now a full professor in the Department of Sciences -- along with some of his colleagues envisioned a much broader faculty-advised undergraduate research program. Today the college has one. PRISM (Program for Research Initiatives for Science Majors) began in 2006 and as a result three or four students a year move on to graduate or medical school, ten times the number as in the 1990s.

"I wanted students to learn not just what science is but what it does," Carpi says. "In the classroom they learned about atomic and evolutionary theory -- and about the organic chemicals they needed to know for the semester. But we didn't focus on process."

Now his students also have ample laboratory space, a luxury that did not exist in years past. For his efforts, Carpi, one of PRISM's two co-directors, received John Jay's 2009 Distinguished Service to Students Award. And this year Jason Quinones ('10), a student mentored by Carpi, was accepted into the Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology doctoral program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Like both Roberts and Carpi, Quinones did not have parents who considered graduate school an option for themselves. His mother had earned some college credits and his father left school in the ninth grade. Quinones says his undergraduate research made him competitive and "was the best choice I could have made."

PRISM, subsidized by federal, state and nonprofit sources, grew from an earlier state-funded program. About 50 students a year participate, up from 13 when it began. (Only four students did undergraduate research in 2000.) Professor Lawrence Kobilinsky is the program's other co-director and professor Ron Pilette teams up students and faculty members and helps students obtain funding.

This initiative is especially important at John Jay, which has a very diverse student body and many first generation college students. It also has more Hispanic students than any college in the Northeast. Almost half the college's students come from families who do not speak English at home.

Sometimes, though, even students whose parents have advanced degrees need support to understand the nuances of research and find the courage -- and the funding -- to undertake it. New York City-born senior Amora Mayo-Perez comes from a well-educated "pretty typical middle-class family." Her mother and sister both have graduate degrees and she hopes to gain acceptance to a doctoral program in biological sciences. Yet she says the opportunity to do research changed her outlook, too. "I thought there was a right answer in class and in lab.... Conducting research has made it clear that nothing goes as planned. It has helped me to become more of a thoughtful problem solver."

Carpi, an environmental toxicologist who studies mercury emissions from soil -- work that might help us to understand the effects that climate change will have on the toxicity of the metal -- involves his students in his research in both intricate and basic ways. "He brings in large bags of soil from his backyard in Connecticut for us to test," says Anthony Ho ('09). Ho now works as Carpi's lab assistant and teaches freshman chemistry. His parents have bachelor's and associate degrees, and he is contemplating medical school or a program in which he will study how foreign substances affect gene regulation.

Students such as Ho, Mayo-Perez and Quinones are the latest links in a mentoring chain that began in the years when Carpi helped freshman Marcel Roberts. Of his own students Roberts now says, "some of them remind me of me when I was younger."

Anthony Carpi, left, has mentored Marcel Roberts, right, now an assistant professor, and student Amora Mayo-Perez.

About 50 students a year participate in PRISM up from 13 when it began.