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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Rocket Science: UMass Boston Find’s Tomorrow’s Scientists Today

Catherine Reyes-Spencer (right), winner of the UMB Full Four Year Scholarship, congratulates Jennifer Ha, this year´s winner.
Catherine Reyes-Spencer (right), winner of the UMB Full Four Year Scholarship, congratulates Jennifer Ha, this year´s winner.

To understand the theory behind UMass Boston’s recent sponsorship of the Massachusetts Science Fair, an annual competition that has drawn more than two million of the Commonwealth’s brightest high school students, you don’t exactly need to be a rocket scientist.

“UMass Boston has very strong undergraduate degree programs in the sciences,” explains Vice Chancellor of Enrollment Management Kathy Teehan, “and we felt that some involvement in the state Science Fair would help us to promote those programs.”

Since 2001, the competition’s top winners have been offered a full, four-year scholarship to attend UMass Boston, a prize with a value of approximately $20,000. Yet this type of financial commitment is more than just a business-as-usual marketing plan; by offering a cost-free college education, UMass Boston is earning the respect of top-tier students who otherwise might be choosing to enroll elsewhere.

Catherine Reyes-Spencer was the first student to be awarded the UMass Boston Full Four Year Scholarship. Currently a sophomore Honor’s Program student majoring in biochemistry, Reyes-Spencer recalls the day she received the first place award. “I was completely surprised! At the time, I just felt that it would be a nice experience to present my research at the competition,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting them to announce my name.”

After moving from her native Colombia in 2000, Reyes-Spencer found herself on the receiving end of the scholarship in 2001 while a junior at Wachusett Regional High School. In order to research her project, entitled “How Do Bacteria Survive Heat,” she was given permission to use the facilities at the UMass Medical School in Worcester.

While many of her high school friends are potentially facing thousands of dollars of debt associated with a college education, Reyes-Spencer can focus her attention on studying and on the benefits of the scholarship. “I think this type of scholarship is great,” she says. “It is a nice incentive for students who are thinking about college.” For her, the scholarship provided both encouragement and a sense of security, which made the transition from high school to college easier. She enrolled at UMass Boston in 2002.

The University has also taken initiatives to strengthen the science-based degree programs in order to provide students like Reyes-Spencer with the best academic support possible. “We have established a College of Science and Mathematics with a new dean as an entity separate from the College of Liberal Arts and we are hoping to draw more research dollars to UMass Boston,” Teehan said, continuing, “Research funding can also offer opportunities for undergraduates to be involved in important projects-another reason for science fair winners to consider UMass Boston.”

A motivated student and an active member of the community, Reyes-Spencer takes full advantage of the academic opportunities that were launched by her winning of the scholarship. As a member of the Undergraduate Mentoring in Environmental Biology Program (UMEB), she is paid to do graduate-level research on E.coli on a part-time basis during the school year and on a full-time basis during the summer.

At this year’s science fair in May, UMass Boston decided to increase its visibility by providing all participating students with a t-shirt. Of course, the scholarship didn’t hurt that effort either. The winner, Lexington High School sophomore Donald Rausher, received second place for his project, “Effects of Varying Amounts of Far-Red Radiation.” Jennifer Ha, a junior from North Quincy High, was named as the scholarship’s alternate winner for her project, “The Aerodynamics of a Ping Pong Ball.”

The UMass Boston Full Four Year Scholarship also appears to be fostering a type of reciprocity between the university and the fair, creating the foundation for a long-standing relationship. In a fitting role-reversal, Reyes-Spencer actually handed out the awards to this year’s winners. She admits to feeling both sympathetic and nostalgic with regard to the participants, including those students from her former high school. “I was proud to be on stage, awarding the prizes to the winners…hearing people from my old school give their presentations. I felt so good.”

Held at MIT, this year’s fair hosted 325 students from over 60 schools around the Commonwealth. Massachusetts, which has long been recognized as a global center of technology, is an ideal place for the science fair, which is sponsored by companies like bio-tech industry giants Biogen Idec, Inc. and the Genzyme Corporation.

In the long run, UMass Boston’s sponsorship of the Massachusetts Science Fair will continue into the foreseeable future, as will the legacy left by the university’s science-oriented students. “We know that UMass Boston graduates in the sciences are going to some of the best graduate schools and medical schools in the country,” says Teehan, adding, “and we know that they are well-prepared and qualified to compete for places in top schools.”