September 11, 2000 Vol. V, No. 2

Biology Professor Chosen for Presidential Mentoring Award

Maria Elena Zavala is One of Ten Individual Educators in the Nation Honored for Mentoring Students in the Sciences

Cal State Northridge biology professor Maria Elena Zavala (right)- who was told as a high school student years ago to take typing instead of science classes - was honored last week with a presidential award for her mentoring work in encouraging minority students to pursue careers in the sciences.

Zavala, a plant biologist who came to CSUN in 1988, was one of 10 individual educators chosen this year to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. The award includes a presidential commemorative certificate and a $10,000 grant to the university to further Zavala's work.

"The university is justly proud of Professor Zavala's well-deserved recognition," said CSUN President Jolene Koester. "She works tirelessly to encourage, educate and expand the horizons of her students, many of whose lives have been transformed by her teaching and personal guidance. I am grateful for her unwavering commitment to our students and the honor she has brought to herself and the university."

"To get this honor was quite a surprise," Zavala said. "When I got my Ph.D. 22 years ago, I was the second Chicano in the country to earn a Ph.D. in botany. There aren't that many of us out there who love to be researchers, teachers and professors. We have a responsibility to show our students that it's possible and help them along the way," Zavala said.

President Clinton established the awards in 1996 to recognize the work of individuals and organizations that inspire and mentor young people from underrepresented groups to succeed in the science, math and engineering fields. Zavala was the only Cal State educator, and one of only two educators from California this year, to receive the individual awards.

Ten institutional awards also were given, including one in California to Humboldt State University, part of the Cal State system, for its Indian Natural Resources, Sciences and Engineering Program.

"We must draw upon our nation's full talent pool to maintain U.S. leadership across the frontiers of scientific knowledge," President Clinton said in announcing the awards. "We honor these individuals and institutions who have contributed so much through their mentoring efforts to achieve greater diversity throughout the ranks of our scientific and engineering workforce."

Zavala and the other recipients were honored during a Thursday, September 7 ceremony in Washington, D.C., hosted by the National Science Foundation, which administers and funds the awards. Zavala and the other recipients also participated in a two-day conference on "Broadening Participation in the Scientific and Technological Workforce Through Mentoring."

Zavala learned of the award through a letter from NSF Assistant Director Judith Sunley that said the "honor recognizes your outstanding achievements and contributions to mentoringŠ Award recipients serve as exemplars in the national effort to develop more fully the nation's science, mathematics and engineering workforce."

The NSF administers the awards program for the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. The program recognizes that mentoring and role modeling are important to the development of talent among minorities and other underrepresented groups in the science, mathematics and engineering fields.

Jim Dole, chair of CSUN's Biology Department, called Zavala receiving the award "absolutely stupendous." "If anybody deserves this award, she does. She has worked her heart out for many, many years and built one of the strongest programs for minority students in the country," Dole said.

Dole said Zavala's work in building the Biology Department's Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) and Minority Biomedical Research Sciences (MBRS) programs has been "fantastic." Zavala has brought in more than $5 million in grants to the university to support both programs, he said.

"We have a lack of people of color who seek Ph.D.s and are in academic positions. We have to try to provide opportunities for students so that they learn that they can succeed and learn the sciences and math, and can go on and get graduate degrees," Zavala said in explaining her involvement in the programs.

Dole said the response was overwhelming when he solicited letters to nominate Zavala for the award. "Every one of her former students I talked to said that, of course, they would write in her support. Many of them said, 'For the first time, I can do something for her.' That's a testament to how they perceive her."

In addition to the White House award, Zavala also is being recognized this month by the Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley as part of its National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. She is one of 10 Latino scientists being honored by the museum for their "remarkable contributions to science and technology."

In a recent interview, Zavala recalled being told by her high school counselors to take typing instead of science and math classes because Latinos did not become scientists or mathematicians. "I was lousy at typing, but I loved math and science. I'm glad I didn't listen to them. I love what I do," Zavala said.

September 11, 2000

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