NSF grant paves the way for future scientists


Chancellor Kyle R. Carter was notified this spring that UNC Pembroke has received a five-year, $618,993 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide scholarships for promising science students.

Maria Santisteban

Dr. Maria Santisteban

Rebecca Bullard-Dillard

Dr. Rebecca Bullard-Dillard

The program, titled Creating Opportunities for Students in Science (COMPASS), provides $6,000 in annual scholarships for three, nine-student cohorts who will join the program in their second year of study in biology, chemistry, environmental science and biochemistry. The COMPASS scholars will have additional resources – tutoring, mentoring and career counseling – available to ensure their success.

Chancellor Carter said the NSF grant is a perfect match for several important institutional goals, including financial support for students and promotion of study in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“I am so pleased that Dr. Santisteban and her team were successful in winning this grant,” Chancellor Carters said. “In addition to promoting the study of science and technology, this grant enhances UNC Pembroke’s ability to provide student support through resources—both academic and financial. These students will turn this extra support into careers in STEM disciplines.”

This grant will help the university recruit and retain outstanding students, said Dr. Ken Kitts, provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. “UNCP is on the rise in every way, and this award will serve to underscore our growing strength as a center of excellence for students interested in the sciences,” he said.

Grant co-author and COMPASS Program director Dr. Maria Santisteban said the grant provides what many UNCP students need to succeed.

“A lot of work went into the grant application; this is very exciting news,” Dr. Santisteban said. “This program will really make a difference for these students. Our goal is to graduate every COMPASS scholar on time.”

A biology professor and molecular geneticist, Dr. Santisteban said the program would also provide support for the students in the form of tutoring, mentoring, internships, career counseling and workshop and conference opportunities, with the goal of placing them in STEM careers and graduate programs. She is working to recruit the first class of nine students for fall semester 2014.

Dr. Rebecca Bullard-Dillard, who directs grant programs at UNCP as dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research, said teamwork was critical to the success of the grant application. A research scientist and member of the Biology Department faculty, she will be co-lead scientist for the program.

“We were successful because our application addressed preparation for STEM careers in a multi-faceted way,” Dr. Bullard-Dillard said. “Our program assures that students who can be successful will be successful.

“Our door is always open to collaborate with faculty to seek out opportunities, and the success of the COMPASS grant is an example of an outstanding partnership,” Dr. Bullard-Dillard said. “Dr. Santisteban worked diligently with us to put the grant application together.”

The goal of the COMPASS program is to build up the nation’s strength in STEM research in science, technology, engineering and math, Dr. Bullard-Dillard said. Training diverse scientists is another goal of the program, and UNCP is fertile recruiting grounds.

“The COMPASS program will build campus resources in teaching, research, recruitment and financial support,” Dr. Bullard-Dillard said. “It helps to meet our goals of increasing retention and graduation rates.

“Without question, most of our students need financial support, and this program reduces the cost of a college education,” she said.

Dr. Santisteban is a good fit for the program because of her background in research and previous work as a grant reviewer. She is a faculty advisor for UNCP’s student Biology Club and president-elect of the North Carolina Academy of Science.

Dr. Santisteban strongly believes the COMPASS Program addresses the needs of many UNCP students. “Students today do not work 10-12 hours a week to help pay for college,” she said. “They work 20-30 hours and sometimes late into the night.

“There is substantial unmet financial need among college students from a county like Robeson,” Dr. Santisteban said. “If we provide the financial aid, they will not feel obligated to work. Our goal is to graduate these students on a timely basis and working so many hours puts them at-risk.”

The design of UNCP’s COMPASS Program will promote student success in several ways. When accepted, the COMPASS scholars will have already proven themselves in introductory science courses. Successful applicants must have a 3.0 grade point average and provide two faculty recommendations. An essay and interview are also required.

“We will have a good idea how they will perform,” Dr. Santisteban said. “I have already had 20 inquiries, so I assume we will have nine really good students in the program next year.”

Once accepted, the cohort will attend a mathematics mini-camp. Dr. Santisteban said competency in mathematics is the best indicator of success in advanced science programs.

COMPASS scholars will be appointed a faculty mentor, who will likely become their advisor. They will have tutoring programs available as well as seminars and career counseling and internships.

“We have talented students here, and with this scholarship, we will improve graduation rates for the university,” Dr. Santisteban said.

For more information about the COMPASS Program, please contact Dr. Santisteban at (910) 775-4274 or email maria.santisteban@uncp.edu.

For more information about grants at UNCP, please contact the School of Graduate Studies and Research at (910) 521-6271 or email grad@uncp.edu.