The Secret Sauce

Xavier University of Louisiana is a historically black, small college of ~3,000 students that’s also a national leader in producing STEM majors that go on to advanced degrees. With two-thirds of the Xavier undergraduates majoring in STEM degrees and a third of those in chemistry, what’s in the secret sauce? In this blog post, Dr. Maryam Foroozesh describes the comprehensive, student-centered departmental ethic that characterizes teaching, mentoring and advising at Xavier.

Xavier’s Chemistry department chair describes a culture of faculty development in training and mentoring undergraduate researchers, including underrepresented minority groups.

Xavier University of Louisiana is a relatively small primarily undergraduate institution with a total of 3,231 students enrolled in fall 2018, 2,463 of who were undergraduates. Xavier is a historically Black (HBCU) and Catholic university nationally known for its Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs. The University is a national leader in the number of STEM majors who go on to receive MD degrees, PharmD Degrees, and PhD degrees in science and engineering, especially students from populations underrepresented in STEM.

Even with a teaching load of 12 hours per semester…Chemistry is the most research active department on campus, with over 5 million dollars in funding each year, state-of-the-art instrumentation, and 48 peer-reviewed publications just in 2017-2018.”

Dr. Maryam Foroozesh

Xavier Chemistry at a glance

  • In Fall 2018, 61% of Xavier’s undergraduates majored in STEM disciplines, with 492 (33%) of them majoring in Chemistry.
  • The Chemistry Department at Xavier is special in many ways:
    • > 95% of departmental faculty have terminal degrees
    • 17 out of the 28 (61%) full-time faculty are tenured
    • 14 (50%) of the full-time faculty are female
    • All lectures and labs are taught by faculty
    • Student:Faculty ratio is 17:1
    • All students have a faculty advisor
  • Even with a teaching load of 12 hours per semester…
    • 17 (61%) of the full-time faculty have research funding and active research programs
    • Chemistry is the most research active department on campus, with over 5 million dollars in funding each year, state-of-the-art instrumentation, and 48 peer-reviewed publications just in 2017-2018
  • The Chemistry Department Faculty have led the submission and implementation of most of the University’s large programmatic grants over the years, such as…
    • National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI)
    • Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD)
    • Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC)
    • Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE)
    • The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded Innovation through Institutional Integration (I-Cubed)
    • Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM)
    • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) funded Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO)
  • Even with limited research space, each year about 85 students perform hands-on mentored research in our Department.

Most visitors to our department comment on the level of cohesion and effectiveness, as well as the friendly environment! Often they ask, “What’s the secret sauce?”

“…because of our mission, we regularly welcome students who would not be offered a chance at success in college by many other institutions.

Dr. Maryam Foroozesh

Mission central

As a mission-driven, primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), the faculty and staff at Xavier are all very dedicated to Xavier’s mission and students. Within the Chemistry Department, this dedication has led to a culture of student-centered cooperation, community and mentoring. We realize that Xavier’s reputation in STEM, Pre-Medicine, and Pre-Pharmacy attracts many strong students to us who would be successful at any institution across the country. We also realize that because of our mission, we regularly welcome students who would not be offered a chance at success in college by many other institutions. Therefore, curriculum, advising, mentoring, peer-mentoring, and academic resources in our department have been intentionally designed to support all of our majors. To support all our students, faculty, research and program staff working with undergraduate researchers in our department are required to complete the Preparing Mentors and Advisors at Xavier (P-MAX) Program. This training is funded by the BUILD Program at Xavier and includes instruction in implicit bias and cultural responsiveness.

Research opportunities for students drive curriculum and funding goals

We also recognize that entrance to professional and graduate programs has become more competitive in recent years, so our faculty have focused on providing the students with opportunities to gain hands-on research, presentation, and scientific writing skills, in addition to networking opportunities. Faculty writing research grant proposals have made a conscious and consistent effort to include student funding for research and travel to conferences in their requested budgets. Faculty are determined to seek funding opportunities for student training programs, infrastructure building, and equipment from various funding agencies.

“…all faculty, research and program staff working with undergraduate researchers in the Department are required to complete the Preparing Mentors and Advisors program at Xavier …which includes implicit bias and cultural responsiveness training.”

Dr. Maryam Foroozesh

Developing junior faculty maintains departmental culture

To maintain this culture of research and productivity, new faculty entering the Department are supported by their more experienced colleagues in every way possible from peer-mentoring to sharing research equipment and supplies. Future success of our students depends on nurturing and retaining junior faculty as they establish their academic careers and research labs. Finding the right balance of teaching, research, and service is challenging for most faculty members, and is an even bigger challenge at a PUI with high teaching loads and service expectations like Xavier. In addition to institutional support mechanisms for faculty development through Xavier’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development, the peer-mentoring and support within the Department play important roles in improving faculty outcomes.

Future success of our students depends on nurturing and retaining junior faculty as they establish their academic careers and research labs.

Dr. Maryam Foroozesh

Since the departmental environment and culture is supportive of faculty efforts and success, the faculty as a unit can deal with institutional expectations and requirements. As a team, we take care of what needs to be done in an effective and efficient manner.

Defying the odds

So what’s the secret sauce? How has Xavier achieved student and research outcomes that defy our size and resource limitations? A culture of mission-focused faculty development, scholarship and teamwork supports and sustains student-centered mentoring, teaching and research.

A culture of mission-focused faculty development, scholarship and teamwork supports and sustains student-centered mentoring, teaching and research.

Dr. Maryam Foroozesh, PhD is the Margaret W. Kelly Endowed Professor in Chemistry, chair of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and of the Division of Biological and Applied Health Sciences, and head of the Chemistry department at Xavier University of Lousiana. Dr. Foroozesh’s research group is involved in the design, synthesis and biological studies of new selective inhibitors of P450 enzymes involved in carcinogenesis, and ceramides with the potential of causing reversal of chemoresistance and endocrine resistance in breast cancer.

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