“Pathways to STEM Research” with the North Star STEM Alliance
June 6, 2024

Just over 10 years ago, an enterprising student at Minneapolis College set out to look for metal-resistant bacteria in an urban environment. The student stopped at a recycling plant in Minneapolis and started collecting soil and water samples, hoping to find bacteria that had developed resistance to heavy metals—zinc in particular. The student brought their samples back to Minneapolis College’s research lab to work under the guidance of Renu Kumar and got to work looking for mutations in the bacteria. Now, ten years on, students continue work on the original project while also conducting parallel research: studying the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in different water sources in Minnesota.

The current research is part of the Louis Stokes North Star STEM Alliance (NSSA), a network of 16 Minnesota colleges and universities that aims to provide two- and four-year STEM students at each partner institution with foundational research experiences. The North Star STEM Alliance is centrally housed at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, with a site coordinator on each affiliate campus. Kumar is a member of the biology faculty at Minneapolis College and serves as the college’s site coordinator for the alliance. 

The University of Minnesota Twin Cities also serves as the primary research site, with professors across STEM disciplines serving as mentors to program participants. NSSA students dive into research alongside four-year undergraduate and graduate students. “During several STEM events, we invite graduate students to share their experience and our students often report that is one of the most helpful parts of the program,” says Kumar. “It gives them a glimpse of the future.”

Opening doors: 3M’s role

One of the NSSA’s goals is to double the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by members of underrepresented populations in science, technology, engineering, and math through five-year grants. 3M enhances the program, helping students get vital research experience and qualify for stipends to support their studies. 

The program operates with a two-prong approach. “Number one: we want to connect students with meaningful research experiences and this program allows us to support them with a stipend,” says Kumar. “And number two, we work to ensure they have activities that will enhance their STEM interest.” This includes opportunities for students to participate in monthly research cohort meetings, get access to support services and STEM events, and present their work at the end of their research experience. 

In addition to gaining critical research skills, a key benefit for students in the alliance is learning interpersonal and problem-solving skills that will last a lifetime. “Our research experiences are conducted as a cohort. In today’s work, nothing can happen in silos,” says Kumar. “You have to be able to talk to the person next to you, to collaborate. The research programs we’ve developed help them build community skills and a sense of belonging—not just with their peers, but in the scientific community at large. For students from underrepresented populations in STEM, this is an essential part of encouraging them on—whether into the field or on to the next level of education.”

A statewide program, with national reach

Simone Gbolo, at the U of M’s College of Science and Engineering, helped start the NSSA in Minnesota and is currently the statewide director. “NSSA’s role is to give students meaningful things to do in their STEM area of study. We want to provide them with career pathway options and experiences that will give them the motivation to keep going, whether to finish their bachelor’s degree or even advance to a master’s degree or PhD program.”

To that end, Gbolo and the team of site coordinators connect students enrolled in the program with mentors and projects, some taking on summer internships and others working with their professors on research opportunities during the school year. 

Kumar, for example, has students in her lab combing over sections of two bacterial DNA samples—the original wild type sample isolated from the recycling plant as it primarily presents in nature and one mutant type they created using transposon mutagenesis. “They’re going through the samples, sequencing the genome, and knocking down the genes so we can find the exact location of the mutation.” 

Kumar has had dozens of students complete undergraduate research experiences at Minneapolis College through NSSA, publishing prospectuses and presenting at regional and national conferences as the project has yielded results. “I hope to publish the latest findings in the next year,” says Kumar. “We’re hopeful that our work will not only help us better understand the bacterial resistance to metals, but there are other applications we hope to develop, like potentially allowing easier bioextraction of zinc when mining.”

The two- to four-year pathway

The NSSA is also working to open pathways for students at two-year institutions to finish their bachelor’s degree studies at a four-year college or university. Research opportunities for students at two-year institutions can be difficult to come by. Jessica Bell, a member of the biology faculty at Century College who collaborates with NSSA, notes that research at this level, complete with social support and a stipend, is very rare at two-year colleges. “Community college doesn’t have research as a primary focus so finding a mentor can be difficult.”

This year marks the start of the alliance’s next five-year grant through the NSF and will fly the banner “Pathways to STEM Research.” Bell says this phase will include direct mentorship experiences through MnDRIVE, a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the State of Minnesota that focuses on five areas: robotics, global food, environment, brain conditions, and cancer clinical trials.

During the NSSA’s summer internship program, students will have U of M mentors and dig into their STEM interests. Bell and other NSSA coordinators will accompany students to the Twin Cities campus to lead classes, help students build their resumes to include their current experiences, and continue to encourage students to consider what might be next in their education. 

“The U of M is a big draw being an R-1 Institution, especially for sciences,” says Bell. “Our goal, with having students come to the U of M campus, with somebody that they know, is to help them feel more comfortable on campus, like they belong on campus, and to help them feel like they should be part of this STEM program.”

Messy is okay

“This is the first professional experience for many of our students in their STEM field, so many of them feel a lot of pressure to perfect the research, nail their final presentation, and make as many contacts as they can during their time in the program,” says Bell. “I remind them that we’re not expecting perfection. I want to see the messy notes! That’s what beneficial mentorship is all about.”