Congressman Sanford Bishop, Jr. (GA-02) recently congratulated FVSU faculty member Dr. Felicia Jefferson for receiving a $49,526 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant will support Dr. Jefferson’s efforts to produce programming which will connect science and engineering students from underrepresented populations with researchers and opportunities to contribute to their work. Her project is entitled, ” Broadening Participation in Engineering through Center-based Research.” In particular, the project will involve the development of a workshop to help students become aware of and apply for graduate fellowships.
“As an 1890 Public Land Grant University, Fort Valley State has long been dedicated to providing a science and research focused education to underserved audiences, and this grant for the National Science Foundation enhances that mission,” said Congressman Bishop. “The workshop supported by this grant will connect students directly with researchers, providing students with the opportunity to apply their education to new and ongoing research opportunities.”
The project will include a workshop focused on providing training in scientific writing and communication, professional development, and access to mentors and role models. It is centered on support for students applying for the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowships Program. The program “recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions,” according to the agency. It is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind. Fellows receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, a $12,000 allowance for tuition and fees, international research and professional development opportunities, and research support. Past fellows include Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Google founder Sergey Brin. It is just the opportunity Jefferson believes FVSU students need in order to step into roles as transformative innovators, scholars, and researchers.
“Often, when I first mention to students an opportunity to apply to the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowships Program, they look at me with this blank stare,” explained Dr. Jefferson. “If we’re going to advance the opportunities for our students to succeed in the STEM workforce, then we have to find ways to make them nationally competitive. This grant allows Fort Valley State University to expand its contribution in attenuating the leaky pipeline that exists for many American STEM majors, particularly that of underrepresented populations.”
Important endorsement of Jefferson’s approach was provided by Dr. Krishnendu Roy, director and principal investigator at the Cell Manufacturing Technologies Engineering Research Center at Georgia Tech. The $40 million, NSF-funded center works to enable biomanufacturing of low-cost, high quality therapeutic cells to help find cures to chronic diseases. The center intents to invite their faculty and senior trainees to serve as speakers and research mentors for the FVSU workshop.
“We are want our students to have options, so that when they leave Fort Valley State University they are all well prepared.”
Dr. Jefferson is fascinated by how the brain works. The assistant professor of biology came to Fort Valley State University after training in biotechnology, molecular genetics, biochemistry, biomedical science, and neuroscience at Rochester Institute of Technology and Georgia State University, earning a Ph.D. at Morehouse School of Medicine and completing post-doctorate work at Emory University. She also has industry experience, having worked as a staff scientist for Proctor and Gamble and Schering-Plough, but wanted to have a faster and more a direct impact. She noticed an underrepresentation of certain minority groups working in science and decided to influence the next generation. She came to FVSU because of its reputation as both a research powerhouse and a teaching institution, two passions extremely important to her. She particularly enjoys the collaboration, not only with fellow instructors and researchers, but with students as well.
Her research focuses largely on neuroscience, neurotechnology, and neuroengineering. She has emerged as a leader in the exploration of cognitive decline and performance, particularly in how sleep deprivation can lead to health challenges like Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia and contribute to the buildup of toxins in the brain. She wants to increase understanding of how appropriate amounts of sleep can improve critical human functions like memory and learning. Her research digs deeply into the subject, down to the cellular and genetic level. She recently received funding to study how technology can be used to aid families caring for people with cognitive deterioration and reduce stress and negative effects on the health of those providing assistance. Through this project, biomedical sciences researchers like Jefferson will collaborate with others who have additional expertise, like mathematicians, engineers, and nurses. She is also helping to organize an international conference to share information related to the science of the brain.
“I always wanted to be a scientist because I wanted to create tools for eliminating human health diseases,” said Jefferson.
Beyond the raw science, Jefferson is also working hard to increase the number of women and minorities who enter into science and research fields. She is partnering with faculty in other departments to explore multiple ways to increase student participation in research. In many of her students, she sees a lot of herself. Jefferson’s parents didn’t attend college, but always promoted education. She became a professor in part to help potentially overlooked students begin to believe in their own potential for discovery.
“I thought, I can definitely help introduce people to scientific research,” she said, reasoning that if students could see an African-American woman like her excelling in the field, they would be more likely to believe that they could do it too.
She loves to learn, and admits that her students laugh at her excitement over the latest scientific research. She firmly believes that the hands-on experience of research can greatly improve a student’s academic achievement, even for a moderate performer— putting theory in context, exposing them to different career paths, and helping them develop skills like attention to detail, note-taking and documentation, project and time management, experimentation, and independent thinking. These are skills, she believes, which are critical to success not only in science, but in other areas as well.
She works closely with students not only in the lab, but also in applying for graduate research fellowships, publishing papers, attending conferences, resume development, interviewing skills, obtaining internships, and building their professional networks. She wants her students to be able to choose from a wide array of opportunities when they graduate, from work in industry to government employment in agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to being accepted to graduate school.
“We are want our students to have options, so that when they leave Fort Valley State University they are all well prepared and employers say, ‘please send more Fort Valley State University students our way,’” she said.