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Living The Best Version Of Yourself…While Reaching For The Stars – Stacey Weiss

By Cynthia Blockburger, Lindsey Intern, SARSEF

Hello again, it’s me, Cynthia Blockburger. This interview highlights Professor Stacey Weiss of University of Puget Sound and how she envisions the core of mentoring as “living the best version of yourself…while reaching for the stars.” I must begin with how amazing Stacey is, not only as a mentor for STAR Lab (Students Taking Advantage of Research) but also for her joy and passion for supporting students as whole people inside and outside of science. As a student and now science teacher in K-12 education, I know firsthand how beneficial it was to have a mentor who believed in me and who I had the potential to become. Professor Stacey Weiss is that unique individual who mentors and guides students in exploring field and lab research with unquestionable joy and exuberant outcomes as they gain ownership of their work. Stacey told me, “I want to instill confidence and develop passion; I want to encourage students to take ownership of and pride in their work; and I want to do this while leading with kindness and support.”

In addition, Stacey is the recipient of the esteemed 2023 Lynwood W. Swanson Scientific Research Award by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

I asked Stacey about her first experience working with the STAR Lab.

I began mentoring with STAR Lab in 2021, working with a wonderful student, Jeronimo (Jerry) Barela, from Catalina Foothills High School. Since I am in Washington State, all my mentoring has been done remotely, and we have relied heavily on the wonderful support provided by SARSEF staff and STAR Lab graduate students. I met with Jerry weekly via Zoom (who could have imagined this, pre-pandemic! I suppose some good came from it all…), where we discussed the context for the work, experimental design, specific methodologies, his progress, and planning our to-do list for the upcoming week. Cecilia, A STAR Lab graduate student, typically joined our Zoom calls. She and other staff would help prepare the materials Jerry needed and demonstrate the techniques to him when he was in the lab. It was quite the team effort! I came away incredibly impressed by the program that SARSEF has created – the resources, organizational structure, and other supports (e.g., weekly meetings with undergraduate facilitators) make this program a transformational experience not only for the mentees but also for the undergraduate and graduate students that assist along the way.

Mentors and students in STAR Lab continue to prepare the way for future research in all fields of STEM. When I asked Stacey in what ways scientific mentorship has impacted her practice and mentoring with the STAR Lab program, she said, I have had a variety of mentors with a variety of mentoring styles. I have tried, over the years, to develop a mentoring style that pulls the best bits from all of them. I began conducting independent, mentored research as an undergraduate student. I was nervous and lacked confidence, but my mentors clearly had trust in me and my abilities, and this helped me push forward in the field. Another mentor was great at personalizing his mentoring approach to the needs of his mentees and encouraging us to find and follow our own passion in science. Another emphasized the importance of community, kindness, and diversity of lived experiences in science. As a STAR Lab mentor, I hope to bring these kinds of growth experiences to Southern Arizona high school students.

I asked about Stacey’s most recent project with STAR Lab, and how it has impacted herself and her students. She said that her research team has identified a handful of symbiotic bacteria that provide antifungal protection to their animal host.

My current STAR Lab students are working with the bacteria to identify the mechanism of antifungal action. The pace of research is often slower than students expect, and a perceived lack of progress can be frustrating for them. I emphasize to students that this is typical, especially when developing new protocols and techniques. My emphasis is not just on imparting knowledge but on nurturing the potential within each student. So, “reaching for the stars” may mean very different things to different students.

I was curious to know how Stacey would describe her experience in field research before working with STAR Lab. When asked, Stacey smiled and stated, “I love fieldwork.

It is definitely what got me hooked into the field of biology! It is empowering to be surrounded by nature and just observe. Observe and generate questions about the natural world. And then figure out how to scientifically address them! Although I have done fieldwork in a variety of places, the one that keeps drawing me back is the Chiricahua Mountains in SE Arizona (for longer than I’d like to admit (30-ish years!)). This mountain is part of the Madrean “sky islands” – an archipelago of mountain islands surrounded by desert seas. The biodiversity here is incredible! I first went there as an undergraduate student from UCLA, and I have been returning annually throughout my professional career. My work is based out of the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station, and I have brought dozens of undergraduate students there with me over the years. I love exposing them to this place that was so transformational in my life. While we are there, we often interact with high school groups that come through the area, including a group from Tucson High Magnet School. That is actually how I got connected to SARSEF and STAR Lab. The previous Director of Research, Margaret Wilch, and I met there almost 20 years ago. I worked with her THMS students over the years. When she retired from teaching and moved to SARSEF, I was delighted to be able to support the program by serving as a remote mentor for STAR Lab students.

Wow, I told you Professor Stacey Weiss is amazing. Her research is as marvelous as our Arizona sunsets…astonishing. So, I wanted to know, as I’m sure you do too, where she sees her work expanding as a faculty member and mentor working with students?

I am trained as a behavioral ecologist, so the microbial work that I am doing now is quite new to me. I hope to continue to learn and develop modern microbial ecology techniques to address questions about the function of wild microbiomes and their effect on their animal hosts. My immediate aims are twofold: 1) I hope to examine interactions between the microbiome and ecoimmunology of free-ranging lizards, and 2) I want to examine intersections between microbial and behavioral ecology by thinking about how lizard behavior (diet, sociality, mating, etc.) affects and is affected by their microbiome.

Tune in for What’s Next with Professor Stacey Weiss. Her research and collaboration with STAR Lab continues. We love her journey, “Living the best version of yourself – while reaching for the stars.”

About SARSEF’s Lindsey Intern, Cynthia Blockburger

Cynthia Blockburger is a highly qualified science teacher and mentor and is currently entering the final phase of her Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Arizona. She is also the Vice President of the College of Education Deans Graduate Advisory Board. In 2022, she was awarded the English Language Arts Title One School’s highest teacher-performer award for the Arizona Academic Standard Assessment. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Science and Mathematics from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo and a Master’s in Education from The University of Arizona. She is a passionate educator with over 19 years of experience working with diverse students in grades K-20, specializing in STEM and English Language Arts. Over the years, Cynthia has developed various robust and diverse science curricula by state and national standards. In doing so, she has extended and fostered positive mentor and mentee relationships with students. As a first-generation graduate student, she has worked in various graduate associate positions, such as with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Under the direction of the University of Arizona Dean Berry and Associate Dean Reyes, Cynthia has provided academic and administrative leadership to support programs in the College of Education, liaised between the college and all campus colleges/divisions, and served crucial roles in research. One of her many goals has been to continue diversifying available programs, such as the AACTE Holmes Scholar Program, to meet the needs of the extended community of learners. She has also worked with Dr. David Moore, Dr. Sara Chavarria, and Dr. Corey Knox to survey the UA campus landscape to identify where field-based or experiential programs could be more inclusive and provide a better student experience from historically marginalized backgrounds. Cynthia’s work supports research and commitment to Equal Opportunity, Diversity, and Inclusion, research findings, and possible solutions for raising awareness among mentors and organizers of field-based research, curricula, and academia. As a first-generation college graduate, she aims to empower students to love obtaining knowledge and develop the joy of striving for academic excellence with a solid foundation for learning.

Mentors Play a Key Role in Supporting High School Students Preparing for the SARSEF Science and Engineering Fair

Mentorship is a key factor in the success of student scientists, and SARSEF staff continue to recruit volunteers who can provide opportunity and guidance to the many students excited to get involved in research.

Press Release – PDF

Ariel Cheng, a 12th grader from Tucson, Arizona, shows off work from her research project along with her mentor, Cynthia Bujanda, Graduate Assistant of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

September 30, 2020

(Tucson, AZ) Forty-five high school students from across Tucson and Southern Arizona have been selected to join STAR Lab, an acronym for “Students Taking Advantage of Research.” The program is a collaboration between SARSEF and the University of Arizona’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology in which high school students receive mentorship and resources to complete research projects over the next school year to be entered into the SARSEF Science and Engineering Fair. This year, STAR Lab is 100% virtual.

Mentorship is a key factor in the success of student scientists, and program managers continue to recruit volunteers who can provide opportunity and guidance to the many students excited to get involved in research.

A mentor is a volunteer who typically has a research component to their career or studies. Mentors come from a range of backgrounds, from the University of Arizona as well as the community. While some are established in their careers, others are currently working on earning their degree. The common factor among all mentors is a dedication to helping the next generation explore and succeed in career paths related to their work.

Mentors support students by providing guidance throughout the process of planning, doing, and reporting out on a research project. They offer academic and career advice as well as access to the resources and knowledge students need to pursue their work.

Students seeking mentors might already have a project they are working on, and they are looking for someone to answer their questions. In other cases, students are eager to work on projects that mentors can offer based on their own work.

In STAR Labs’ inaugural year (2019-2020), twenty area high school students worked with 14 different mentors to complete research projects. This year, the number of students involved has more than tripled, indicating how eager students are to pursue research as well as their need for support during the process. The number of mentors has doubled indicating how excited our community is to give back.

The rewards of mentorship are not just for the mentees.

“I enjoy working with high school and undergraduate students. It is very fulfilling and energizing because they don’t yet know how hard research is – shh, don’t tell them! Their enthusiasm, “can do” attitude and “sponge-like” curiosity is fantastic,” Dr. Daniela Zarnescu, a Professor at the University of Arizona shared. Throughout her career, Dr. Zarnescu has mentored over 70 students directly.

Additionally, mentors have the opportunity to watch as students grow and flourish in their own careers and lives.

“I am obviously proud of them all and happy for them as they develop their own career paths,” said Dr. Zarnescu. “I feel privileged to have known and worked with these amazing students. My very first high school student kept in touch through her college and medical school journey and even invited me to her wedding a few years ago-that felt really special!”

If you are interested in becoming a mentor to a high school student as they conduct research in a science, technology, engineering, or math field, reach out to SARSEF’s Director of Research, Margaret Wilch at margaret@sarsef.org. All mentorship opportunities are currently virtual.