Bioengineering major Maryam Elizondo ’19 deliberated at the 3-D printer for what seemed like the hundredth time. Her goal was to produce a hemi-cylindrical structure with tiny conduit channels that would encourage optimal neuronal growth in the spinal cord of a mouse. If successful, the device might enable the mouse to regain motion below the site of a spinal injury. To create this structure, she had to determine just the right light setting in combination with the right formulation of a special printing gel, a painstaking process of trial and error that had pushed Maryam to dig deep.
“The formulation I needed was so specific,” she says, “and it was affected by so many variables.” Then, it all came together. Maryam was named one of the winners of the 2017 Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering Symposium poster competition for her project, “Stereolithography of Biocompatible Hydrogels for Neuroregeneration.”
This moment of discovery, and others like it in the course of her Rice education, may not have come to pass without Maryam’s participation in the Rice Emerging Scholars Program (RESP). Coming from a high school with limited resources, she didn’t have the same level of preparation in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering or math).
Many students in every incoming class face this same challenge, and without additional support, nearly half of them will change to non-STEM majors. Since 2012, RESP has provided this support through a six-week summer academic prep program, proactive advising and hands-on research opportunities.
The results are clear. Eighty-six percent of RESP participants graduate in a STEM major, compared to a rate of 40-50 percent for those who qualify for RESP but do not take part. Many RESPies, as they refer to themselves, are first-generation, low-income and underrepresented minorities, and their success is critical to strengthening a pipeline of diverse STEM graduates.
Maryam’s pathway to bioengineering breakthroughs began in her hometown of McAllen, Texas, where she grew up in a tight-knit household with a family that expected her to stay close to home after high school. Maryam, however, had different ideas. “I learned about Rice while researching the Buckyball,” she remembers. “I fell in love with the university.”
Maryam, bottom right, with fellow poster award winners at the 2017 IBB Symposium. Maryam's poster featured her summer research, “Stereolithography of Biocompatible Hydrogels for Neuroregeneration”
Coming to Rice, she felt confident about her preparation. Arriving on campus the summer before her freshman year to take part in RESP, she received the program’s signature crash course in STEM preparation. As she plunged into the hardest parts of freshman calculus, chemistry and physics, she recognized that she had underestimated her baseline knowledge.
She was also transitioning to college life from a community that was very different from what she found on campus. “I was very emotional during the RESP summer program,” Maryam recalls. “I was questioning everything I knew. I was questioning whether I belonged at Rice.”
RESP provided Maryam with critical tools and support, which in turn boosted her confidence and enabled her to act on her potential. Vital to her development was access to tutors, peer coaches and weekly meetings with Megan McSpedon, RESP’s passionate and hands-on associate director. “We are throwing the hardest concepts at these students,” explains McSpedon. “And they are phenomenal at applying what they’ve learned. RESP scholars are amazing problem-solvers because most of them have spent their lives solving problems in low-resource environments.”
Maryam’s early exposure to campus, faculty and other RESP students aided the transition between high school and college. Partnering with former RESP upperclassmen gave her an academic boost. It also gave her proof that her potential was more than just her preparation. Her RESP peers became instant friends with shared experiences. “We were all in the same boat because we all came from high schools with similar challenges,” she says. “We also share backgrounds as low-income, first-generation students.”
“My mentors and RESP Fellows showed me what an efficient, effective Rice student looks like." — Maryam Elizondo '19
As a junior, Maryam is thriving in the bioengineering department. “This major encompasses the breadth of engineering,” she clarifies. “I take electrical engineering courses and mechanical engineering courses and use these disciplines to analyze things that are happening in the human body.” Within her major, she’s an engaged, competitive and confident student who others come to for help.
“My mentors and RESP Fellows showed me what an efficient, effective Rice student looks like,” she says. “More importantly, I learned how to become one.”
If you would like to support the Rice Emerging Scholars Program, please contact Jeanette Zey, director of development, at 713-348-4669 or firstname.lastname@example.org.