The Biology Scholars Program helps turn the big world of UC-Berkeley into family for aspiring scientists

When Juan Magana applied to University of California, Berkeley, at his sister's urging, he didn't know much about the school.

Nov 7, 2005
The Scientist Staff

When Juan Magana applied to University of California, Berkeley, at his sister's urging, he didn't know much about the school. On his first trip to visit the campus, the Salinas, Calif., native settled in for a long nap and was surprised to be awoken a short time later. "I thought we were going to Oregon," he says.

Once he'd enrolled, there were other surprises. Magana, whose parents are Mexican immigrants, is part of the first generation in his family to go to college. He had taken a few college-prep science classes, but his SAT scores were far below Berkeley's average, and teacher shortages at his high school had left him unprepared in some subjects. He found himself surrounded by students from top-notch private high schools who had spent years preparing for their university studies. "Everyone around me was saying, 'Oh my god, I've been wanting to go to Berkeley my whole life,"' he remembers. "For me, it was totally new and kind of overwhelming."

That's where the Biology Scholars Program (BSP) came in. The program, run by the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, offers services to minority and female undergraduates studying the biomedical sciences. About 80% come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and are the first in their families to go to college.

Advisers recruit the students in their earliest days at Berkeley, starting during orientation before the school year even begins. "What sticks out is our SAT scores," Magana says. "They saw my scores, and they said, 'Hey, this guy might need a little help.' So they came to talk to me."

According to Berkeley professor John Matsui, who founded the program 14 years ago and serves as its director, BSP's long life and strong reputation result not so much from its mix of services, which is "fairly typical," as from its approach to delivering those services. "The devil is in the implementation and the philosophy," he says.

Funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, BSP treats students like individuals and takes into account nonacademic factors that can affect their work, Matsui explains. "We don't handhold and we don't baby, but we take a realistic assessment of where the student is, what skills and background they have, and what they need in order to succeed, and we start them there."

That kind of one-on-one attention can be especially important at Berkeley, which has about 33,000 students. BSP, serving just 450 students at any given time, aims to "shrink down the university, and individualize and personalize students' experiences," Matsui says.

"If there's one word that sums up BSP, it's family," Magana says. Now in his third year, Magana has begun to tutor younger students. That's typical for BSP members, who are expected to give back to the program and to society at large.

Another key to BSP's success is that it closes cultural gaps and not just academic gaps for its students. "We teach them about the culture of the university and the culture of university science," Matsui explains.

Matsui helped author a study that found that BSP minority students are more likely to fulfill their intention of graduating with a biology major than those who don't participate in the program. Among intended biology majors, about 70% of minority BSP students earned the degree, compared to roughly 45% of minority students not enrolled in the program.

BSP is working on new studies designed to provide hard data showing how it helps students succeed. "My sense is that people are going to be blown out of the water," says Matsui, "when they see what these poorly prepared students have ultimately accomplished."