STILLWATER — While he was an undergraduate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., Gilbert John learned the impact a good faculty mentor can have on a student.
Now a professor at Oklahoma State University, John is working to connect his students with the same kind of mentorship that he received.
John, a microbiology and molecular genetics professor, is overseeing a new program at OSU that works with American Indian students who are pursuing doctoral degrees in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math.
The program, called Science Scholars: The Native American Path, is funded by a $40,000 grant from the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
The society has committed to fund the OSU program for the next two years.
John, a Navajo, grew up on a reservation in New Mexico.
When he got to Colorado State, he worked with a professor named Robert Ellis, who had grown up near the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming.
Ellis told John about playing basketball with children from the reservation when he was a boy.
“These types of stories really set me at ease with him,” John said.
After John graduated with a bachelor's degree in microbiology, he stayed at Colorado State for graduate school and worked in Ellis' lab.
Through the OSU program, John hopes to connect American Indian students there with faculty mentors like the one he had.
The program provides funding for students to give presentations at the society's national conference, held annually in different cities nationwide.
This year's conference will be held in October in San Antonio.
John said he expects to take 22 students this fall.
Before that conference, students will attend a workshop with OSU faculty members, who will help the students develop their presentations for the conference.
After the conference, students will go through another workshop where they will work on their applications for summer research programs.
Besides having the opportunity to present their research, the conference gives students the chance to network with other students and scientists from across the country, John said.
American Indians, and minorities in general, are underrepresented in science-related fields, said Jason Kirksey, OSU's vice president for institutional diversity.
That lack of representation exists for a variety of reasons, he said, including a lack of interest and a limited number of role models in those communities.
Exposing American Indian students to science-related careers gives them a broader view of the world, Kirksey said.
It shows them career paths that they might not have considered in the past and offers them a different level of academic engagement, he said.
John said he hopes to see more American Indian students pursue careers in science.
Noting that he is the only full-blooded American Indian faculty member in OSU's microbiology department, John said the university is in a unique position to start to address that disparity.
“There is clearly a need to increase the number of Native Americans entering science and a need for more Native American faculty,” he said.