Georgia Impact Science & Technology Society & Culture

Engineering a Community

Kimata Thomas, Nicholas Myers, Jamye Thigpen, Rosalba Mazzotta, and Eric Okanume (from left to right) make up the advisory board for the Peach State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. Since its launch in 2006, some 1,300 STEM students of color at the University of Georgia have benefited from the program. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

The Peach State LSAMP is helping STEM students of color tap into their leadership abilities.

When Rosalba Mazzotta was in the midst of her internship at a firm in the energy industry, the fourth-year biochemical engineering major took the opportunity to brush up on some of her research.

She counted the number of employees of color. She also counted the number of white employees named John.

They were the same. Four.

Mazotta’s parents are both university professors—her mother teaches Japanese, her father, finance—so she is no stranger to diversity in academic circles. But in STEM fields, longtime barriers to students of color have only recently started to crumble.

And there is a still a long way to go. Mazzotta wants to help tear down those barriers forever. That’s what drew her to the Peach State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP). And that’s why she sits on its advisory board, and why she is excited to help make STEM education at UGA a more popular path for all.

An Encouraging Start

The Peach State LSAMP’s mission is to encourage students from underrepresented groups to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Since its launch in 2006, the UGA-led, statewide consortium has been doing that job very well.

Enrollment from underrepresented groups in STEM fields increased 325% over the last 17 years at UGA alone. And the number of STEM bachelor’s recipients is up 550%. Some 1,300 students at UGA have benefitted from Peach State LSAMP programming.

While those figures are encouraging— outstanding, even—that doesn’t mean the work to grow STEM education is over.

In many ways, it’s just getting started.

Mentorship Matters

“LSAMP has exposed me to inspiring students that have increased my capacity for mentorship—a topic I hold dear to heart because of those who took the time to invest in me and always motivate me to look for ways to do the same,” says Nicholas Myers, a second-year double major in biochemistry/molecular biology and mathematics.

Myers credits fellow advisory board member Eric Okanume as one of his first mentors. Now they serve together.

“I feel blessed to have been guided and counseled by so many individuals who genuinely care about my success and well-being,” says Okanume, a fourth-year biological science major in the Department of Poultry Science.

“Nick and I first met while I was representing LSAMP at the UGA Black Student Convocation Organizational Fair in the fall of 2021. Since then, he has been an exceptional peer and friend. The idea that I can do something to inspire someone else to pass on this same feeling is beyond exhilarating, and I strive to positively impact others every day.”

Angela Birkes knows firsthand the doubts, angst, and isolation many STEM students face.

As a mechanical engineering student at Howard University in the 1980s, Birkes was one of few Black women pursuing a degree in the field. She remembers what it felt like to have nowhere to turn for support.

I feel blessed to have been guided and counseled by so many individuals who genuinely care about my success and well-being,” — Eric Okanume, fourth-year agriculture major and member of the Peach State LSAMP advisory board

Birkes went on to earn a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering, but she never forgot the challenges she faced along the way.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have someone to talk to who can share in some of your experiences. Mentors can tell you how they overcame problems and offer lessons learned,” says Birkes, who has served as director of the Peach State LSAMP since 2010. UGA President Jere W. Morehead JD ’80 and Senior Vice Provost Michelle Cook are the co-principal investigators.

That’s why building a community among Peach State LSAMP students and encouraging mentorship has become standard practice. Program alumni often come back to meet with students or to serve on alumni panels. If they can’t make it back in person, they’ll hop on Zoom to provide guidance and support to LSAMP students.

As in Okanume’s and Myers’ cases, upperclassmen mentor younger students as well, and students from all years take part in the bridge program. One of Peach State LSAMP’s most successful innovations, the bridge program brings 14 to 18 graduating high school seniors to Athens over the summer for a three-week introduction to STEM education. Many bridge program students go on to pursue undergraduate degrees in STEM subjects and frequently advance to graduate school.

The Faculty Equation

The LSAMP concept is not exclusive to Georgia.

More than 40 states and Puerto Rico have an LSAMP in some form. LSAMPs receive a combination of federal and other funding. Each state runs their version of the program.

In 2022, the National Science Foundation awarded UGA $2.5 million to expand the initiative, a signal that the UGA-led alliance is on the right track.

The new federal funding will enable Peach State LSAMP to launch workshops to introduce students to high-demand STEM areas like data science, mass spectrometry, and scanning electron microscopy.

In 2021, the Peach State LSAMP piloted a partnership with the Georgia Research Alliance called the GRA Student Scholars, which enabled 10 of the state’s university students to work alongside some of Georgia’s most accomplished scientists and engineers. The 2022 GRA grant helped that program to expand to 15 students in 2022.

One of the faculty members who hosts Peach State LSAMP students is Art Edison, GRA Eminent Scholar and Board Trustee in UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center.

Students in Edison’s lab conduct experiments, use advanced scientific equipment, and learn the fundamental processes of scientific inquiry. Edison says working with the GRA and the Peach State LSAMP has transformed his ideas about teaching and supporting underrepresented minority students.

“The LSAMP program has empowered me to realize how much we can do if we just make an effort,” he says. “We need more qualified students in the United States to go into the sciences, and this program helps ensure that we achieve that goal.”

Who was Louis Stokes?

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Louis Stokes was an attorney and civil rights pioneer who served in the House of Representatives for 30 years. As a lawyer, he argued cases in front of the Supreme Court and was the first Black man elected to Congress from Ohio.

In 1991, the National Science Foundation created the Alliance for Minority Participation program in five states and Puerto Rico. In 1998, the year Stokes retired from Congress, his name was added to the AMP program.