Assistant Professor of Biology, Dr. Tracy Callender, knows what it is like to travel a professional path with the continued support of mentors, and is committed to making that road less lonely for researchers from underrepresented minority groups, by providing them with a similar support system.
Callender, who has been teaching at Farmingdale State College since 2019, is involved with initiatives to help draw minority students into research and also support graduate and postgraduate students interested in academic careers. Since starting at Farmingdale, she has worked closely with the Research Aligned Mentorship (RAM) program as a faculty mentor on a number of diversity initiatives, while continuing to mentor research interns.
She is a teaching mentor and the FSC Coordinator of a subaward from a National Institute of Health (NIH) grant awarded to Stony Brook University, geared toward preparing post-doctoral researchers for academic careers at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) like Farmingdale. She is also one of FSC’s Co-Principal Investigators of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant awarded to Stony Brook University in alliance with FSC, Suffolk County Community College, and Brookhaven National Laboratory, which focuses on the training and support of Underrepresented Minority (URM) STEM Ph.D. candidates with an interest in a faculty career at a primarily undergraduate institution.
Callender chose to join these efforts because minority students are often not aware of the types of research opportunities available, how to prepare for them, or how to find jobs within the research fields. “I encourage others to go into research—not everyone knows the opportunities available,” according to Callender. “I expose them to the various paths that can be taken within a research career.”
She will be pairing graduate and postgraduate students with FSC Biology faculty mentors and mentoring undergraduates herself during the Spring 2023 semester. “It’s important for students to see someone who looks like them,” Callender noted. “That made me realize the importance of becoming a mentor. They need to see that representation, not just as a minority faculty, but as a woman in STEM.”
Those in the teaching fellowship spend a year participating in pedagogical training with a mentor at one of the partner schools, such as FSC, either in a lab or lecture course. Founders of the program recognize that many graduate students complete their degrees and find themselves in a classroom full of undergraduates with no idea how to effectively communicate the subject matter, Callender noted.
Neither research nor teaching were on Callender’s mind when she came to the U.S. from Barbados in 1997 with plans to earn her bachelor’s degree and attend medical school. “Nobody talked about research; it was not the norm,” she said, noting that many immigrants are focused on the most practical applications of their degrees.
“As an undergraduate, I started by washing glassware in a lab,” she said. Callender became intrigued with the research in the lab and asked the professor if she could work on a project. “Initially, research was not on my radar. But it turned out I loved it.”
She had an interest in reproductive biology and she merged it with her Ph.D. research. After completing her degree, Callender was in the first cohort of students to participate in a pedagogical training fellowship at Stony Brook University. She had taken a position as an adjunct professor at a university and discovered how difficult teaching is. “You learn how to come down to the level of the student,” Callender said of the training. “I became a much better communicator.”
Through the FSC Bioscience program, undergraduates carry out research with a faculty mentor, learning more about what research involves and the available career opportunities. “In research, you are giving of yourself,” said Callender. “You have to love this. Mentors understand the nature of being in the research field, which is very different from how things work in lab classes, where students are told what to do and the answer to the questions asked are always known.”
According to Callender, more information about job opportunities in the STEM fields has to be circulated in the right places to attract a greater number of minority students to research. Offering paid internships to student researchers is helpful, because often students from underrepresented groups have to support themselves.
The rewards are worth the efforts. Part of the excitement of the program is seeing students grow into independent and critical thinkers. “It’s amazing to see when students bring projects to fruition,” Callender said. “When they present their research, they come out of their shells and gain confidence.”