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NMSU professor receives presidential award

New Mexico State University Regents Professor Elba Serrano is among 27 individuals across the country named last week to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.


Head and shoulders of a woman wearing a blue scarf
NMSU Regents Professor of biology Elba Serrano received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
Woman in blue scarf and purple gloves talking to girl in white lab coat
NMSU Regents Professor Elba Serrano is shown discussing an experiment with a student in her lab. (NMSU Photo)

“I am grateful and humbled by this award, which is a tribute to the achievements of the many talented students who attend our Hispanic-serving institution,” Serrano said. “But it’s important to understand that I am just a part of a large mentoring community. So when a student is mentored I am not the only influence, my colleagues are influential, their families are influential.”

The PAESMEM award recognizes the critical roles mentors play outside the traditional classroom in the academic and professional development of the future STEM workforce. The National Science Foundation administers the program on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Serrano’s colleagues, students and Executive Vice President and Provost Dan Howard nominated Serrano for the honor in 2014. Awardees are selected for exemplary mentoring sustained over a minimum of five years.

“I have known Elba Serrano for almost 30 years and her work with undergraduate and graduate students has always been a source of inspiration for me,” Howard said. “She expects a lot, but gives a lot, and her students deliver. What a wonderful acknowledgement of her good work and the good work that goes on at NMSU every day.”

Serrano’s current biomedical research focuses on the brain’s glial cells that help maintain brain health and also can cause many brain cancers, and on neurosensory disorders of hearing and balance. She has brought in more than $15 million in external research funding to the university. Serrano has taught over 2,500 students and mentored more than 120 student researchers in her lab. Over half of her students are underrepresented minorities and the majority of her mentees have achieved advanced MS, PhD and MD degrees.

Moreover, she has reached out to hundreds more at the university during her years as the principal investigator for National Institutes of Health programs such as the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and BP-ENDURE Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience (BRAiN). Both programs focus on mentoring students to pursue science careers. At the national level she is the faculty advisor for the International Neuroethics Society Student/Postdoc Committee and serves as a mentor for the Society for Neuroscience Scholars Program.

“Dr. Serrano has been a mentor and role model for hundreds of students at NMSU over many years, said Enrique Pontelli, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "She knows first-hand the kinds of challenges students face as first-generation college students pursing degrees in STEM fields. This award is one of many she has received to recognize her commitment to her students’ success. This award is richly deserved."

“For me mentoring is about identifying scientific questions, imparting professional skills, having fun collaborating together, playing in the lab, thinking about ideas, learning how to design a robust experiment ” Serrano said. “The science has to be part of it, how to do rigorous science, how to ask questions and use evidence to find answers. The essential skills for scientific research are transmitted on the job, which is why mentoring is so important. Science requires discipline, the ability to communicate effectively and to work in teams, and a strong work ethic. The same is true of math, engineering and all the disciplines that are STEM.”

One of Serrano’s former students who earned his Ph.D. in biology at NMSU is Daniel Ramirez-Gordillo, also an alumnus of NMSU’s CAMP program, which assists students from migrant farmworker families in their first year of college. He is the first NMSU student from that program to earn a doctorate and he credits much of his success to Serrano’s mentorship.

“Dr. Serrano identifies students’ strengths and weaknesses and based on that, she works on the weaknesses but in a way that you don’t know until you see how your life has changed,” said Daniel Ramirez-Gordillo, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “ She tells me the things I need to improve and that is something that I appreciate because it will only help me.”

Serrano acknowledges the importance of her own mentors who helped her strengthen her own research skills at Stanford University. “They were so patient with me. They were brilliant scientists who led by example, and they treated me based on what I brought to the table as a scientist. Here’s why I think mentoring is essential: We are a community of scientists training scientists. We come together in the laboratory and the classroom and in national discussions of the discipline. In the context of getting the work done, mentoring must happen to ensure the future success of young scientists and the development of leaders in the profession.”

When Serrano arrived at NMSU in 1992, biology professor Marv Bernstein mentored her as a young faculty member.

“Dr. Serrano came to NMSU with a passion to encourage and help undergraduates select and succeed in science majors, especially in the biomedical sciences, then to earn advanced degrees, and finally to become scientists and scholars,” said Bernstein, now a professor emeritus. “She has pursued her goal by mentoring NMSU students with unprecedented success and her passion remains undiminished today.”

Serrano believes there are opportunity areas where NMSU can play a leadership role. “As a nation we have to find a way to engage and find jobs for the next generation of scientists. NMSU can work to bring STEM educated New Mexicans back to the state. ” Serrano said. “Second, we have an amazing educational system in our country and I think in the 21st century there will be a greater and greater role for community colleges in maintaining a well-trained STEM workforce. Third, we must tap into the potential of our underrepresented minority students because innovation and the best science are produced by a diverse workforce. Because NMSU is a research-intensive HSI, we can excel in this area.”

Serrano's other distinctions include the 2015 Distinguished Award from the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science, a Ford Fellowship, and election as a Fellow of AAAS. She recently completed terms as a member of the Advisory Committee to the National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, as co-chair of the NIH Director’s Advisory Committee’s Working Group on Diversity, and on the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Council. She is a current member of the Advisory Committee’s Next Generation Working Group on Diversity and the NIH BRAIN Multi-Council Working Group.

“This is a great time for science. We have the best-trained scientists that we’ve ever had in the history of science in my opinion. They are young and they have many ideas. I love learning from the students. They challenge me, they provoke me and they ask me to look deeper into scientific questions. For me, there is joy in science. There is joy in engaging another mind in the journey of scientific discovery.”

More information about the award is available at http://paesmem.net/node/2605 .