Dr. O will stand out among the scientists, mathematicians and engineers who will be honored at a White House ceremony this fall. Grinning from ear to ear, he’ll be the one whose sheer delight in life will be spreading to everyone in the room, from President Barack Obama on down.
Cal State Northridge biology professor Steven Oppenheimer—“Dr. O” to many—is among only 22 nationwide recently to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
It is an honor Oppenheimer did not seek, but one he has spent a lifetime earning. During the Brooklyn-born professor’s 38 years at CSUN, he has communicated his joy in life and learning to battalions of students who have carried it into research, medicine, teaching, forensics technology, pharmacology, dentistry and many other fields of science.
Oppenheimer has co-authored with more than 700 students—most of them undergrads—about 200 peer-reviewed papers, abstracts and presentations. He has mentored some 200 long-term student researchers, many of them women and underrepresented ethnic minorities.
In any given semester, from 50 to more than 100 students are at work in his lab, treated to his famously corny jokes and a greeting—“How’s it going, Professor?”—that signifies his faith in their academic futures. They also are treated to the elusive opportunity to do research.
Fresh out of UCLA with A’s all over her transcript, a young grad student recently gravitated to Oppenheimer’s lab. “She’d been interested in a Ph.D. program at UCLA but didn’t get in. The reason? No research experience,” he said.
“She did a beautiful piece of work here, published it, and is now getting honors in Yale’s Ph.D. program. What that says—and this is a typical situation—is that a good research experience…plays a major role in getting into an advanced program.”
Not all, however, come to Oppenheimer as academic heavy-hitters. “I like to give every student who is interested the chance to do some research,” he said. “I’ve seen too many cases where the GPA may not be that good; the kid may look a little disheveled. Some of those turn out to be the best.”
His method for mentoring and managing hundreds of student researchers? “First of all, my office is in the lab. In fact, I don’t have an office. I’m right in the middle; no glass, no wall. I’m sitting here every day; I can see what’s going on.” He checks students’ lab notebooks daily. “It’s a very well-defined and organized operation with lots of controls.”
He appoints a team of student leaders to help train the new students and set up the experiments, a practice the scientist considers key to the system’s success. “I couldn’t do it alone,” said Oppenheimer, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who for years has partnered with committed CSUN faculty peers on student research work.
The payoff is evident. One product of Oppenheimer’s mentorship, a minority scholar who earned a Ph.D. in cell developmental biology from Harvard, is now a senior scientist at Washington University. “Dr. Oppenheimer,” said Claudia Garcia, “continues to be a great mentor to me and to many other students…interested in science.”
For more on Dr. O’s career, mentoring successes and Presidential Award, see http://blogs.csun.edu/news/2009/07/15/mentoring/.
Visit www.csun.edu/csm/ for information on CSUN’s College of Science and Mathematics.
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