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Image: Photos of SF State alumna Bonnie Rose Hough, professor Frank Bayliss and other images from Fall/Winter 2009 issue of SF State Magazine

Campus Beat

10 Questions

for Frank Bayliss, professor of biology and founder of the Student Enrichment Opportunities office at SF State

Photo of Frank Bayliss. Photo by Gino De Grandis

You just received President Barack Obama's Presidential award for excellence in science Mentoring. What did that mean to you?

It's curious. You just do your life's work and you never expect to get anything for it. The best part was reading the letters of recommendation from my colleagues. It was an incredible endorsement.

 

After two decades in the classroom what inspired you to focus on mentoring?

Science is a mentoring-based discipline so I was always mentoring the students in my lab. What I started doing in '92 [when he founded the Student Enrichment Opportunities office which provides SF State students with financial support and science mentoring] was going out and getting large sums of money so I could fund a more significant effort and pay for students to be in the lab so they didn't have to work other jobs.

 

On average about nine percent of biology undergraduates earn doctorates. SF state programs are running at more like 40 percent. Are advanced degrees a specific goal of the student enrichment opportunities office?

It's an absolute requirement [for funding from the National Institutes of Health]. The NIH wants more underrepresented minorities to go into Ph.D. programs. When I look back from 1984 to 2003, there was one minority graduate from SF State who completed a Ph.D. program. From 2004 on we've had over 35. In a couple of years it will be 15 a year. It's all a result of leveling the playing field.

 

Why is mentoring important and how is it different from career counseling?

Counseling is talking heads; you just tell someone what they ought to do. In mentoring, you are doing it with them; you are co-scientists. In the process you get into the reasons why certain steps are important. It's not limited to science, but it's fundamental in anything that's experiment based.

 

Did you benefit from mentoring as a student?

Oh yes. My major instructor learned from his major instructor who learned from his major instructor. In the sciences we're apprentices that go through apprenticeship after apprenticeship. Science is the product of generations of scientists passing on what they came to know and how they came to know it.

 

What do you think is the cause for most students who are struggling academically?

Unfortunately most kids are coming to college unprepared. They can have a 4.3 GPA and still not be ready. Most of our students are regional and California is not doing a very good job. We're not putting enough resources into K-12. That's a major issue. And we have disparate [school] systems. That's why we do supplemental instruction. We have an hour and a half discussion group for each lecture and intro course so students don't have to go backward and redo things. Our students are bright and they are motivated. They catch up very quickly.

 

How has the student body changed in the last three decades?

It has certainly become more diverse every year, which is wonderful. But students have become less prepared over time. The student-faculty ratio has doubled since I've been here, so the students are in a very different environment.

 

You personally mentor more than 150 students. What do you bring to those one-on-one relationships?

I help them decide their goals and design a plan and then I keep on top of them and make sure they are on track. I believe in them. And that's a big part of it. Mentoring is a personal commitment and a belief system. There is a person involved and their personal welfare is at stake.

 

You almost sound like a parent.

It's a little better than being a parent because your kids reject your advice, but mentees are more receptive.

 

What aspect of your career has been the most personally gratifying?

Being a part of the personal success of delightful people is very rewarding. This is good work. This isn't an effort on my part. It's a wonderful privilege.

 

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