As part of Virginia Commonwealth University’s “Bridges to the Baccalaureate: From Dream to Goal” biomedical and behavioral summer research program, Rappahannock Community College student Alexis Lassiter recently participated in an eight-week summer internship. During this time, she and eight other students from around the state learned basic research methods, and then developed and presented their own projects with the help of graduate student mentors. The students were paid as full-time research employees during this period; they will return for another eight weeks next summer to conduct independent research projects.
Lassiter’s project, titled “Characterizing zebra fish phenotypes using immunostaining and histological techniques,” showed how to analyze the function of genes and proteins in the development of vertebrates, tracking the movement of neurons by injecting fluorescent material. Although Lassiter worked on only a small portion of a complex research project, as did each of the other students, they often met to discuss their experiences. The program included an ethics class that focused on issues inseparable from biomedical research.
Among the students who participated in the program, Lassiter is remarkable for her success at dealing with a multitude of other responsibilities. The fact that she has a 14-month-old son to care for prompted VCU officials to allow her to commute from her New Kent County home every day, rather than living on campus as all the others did. Though she would not have been able to take part in Bridges to the Baccalaureate without this concession, she regards the travel and the separation from her student colleagues as “one of the hardest challenges of the program.”
In addition, Lassiter holds down a full-time job as manager of a Burger King restaurant — a promotion she attained by impressing her employers with her ability to juggle home responsibilities, her work schedule, the VCU program, and her RCC classes. Now that the fall semester has begun, Lassiter is taking a full course load of 15 credit-hours, added to the class she is being required to take by the internal Burger King management program. At RCC she also maintains membership in the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society (requiring a minimum 3.5 GPA), the federal work-study program, and the Student Support Services program. She is the recipient of a PELL grant, and is a Higher Education Act Title IV representative, as well as serving as an RCC student ambassador. Her busy life has taught her that “everyone has problems, but none that can’t be dealt with. Just always do your best, reach for the stars … and don’t make excuses.”
Lassiter graduated from West Point High School in 2013 with an advanced diploma and a determination to continue her education, stemming partly from her mother’s support, but especially from the unfailing encouragement of her grandmother. “For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has spoken of the benefits of going to school, and encouraged me to pursue my education,” she says. Her place of residence put her on the borderline between three community colleges, but she chose to enroll at RCC in Fall 2013 because “that is where I felt the most comfortable. The school is very close-knit and everyone is very helpful, plus the teachers want you to do well.”
While affirming that she enjoys her time at RCC, Lassiter nevertheless looks forward to receiving her associate degree in Spring 2015, doing her second eight weeks of research at VCU, and then entering that school as a junior to study biology. Eventually she hopes to earn a master’s degree, and a doctorate in medicine. Before attending the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program, she had other plans; but the university, its professors, and the personal interest shown by everyone she met there made an overwhelming impression on her.
The goals of the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program are to give more community college students an interest in transferring to four-year schools in pursuit of a degree in biology or related subjects; to foster their academic success, leading to graduation; and ultimately to increase the number of students from under-represented groups who pursue research careers. These groups include racial and ethnic minorities; students who are economically disadvantaged or disabled, or come from inner-city or rural areas; and first-generation college students.
“Good science comes from involving people with different perspectives,” says VCU Biology Department professor Dr. Karen Kester. “Including people from different backgrounds … energizes science and produces solutions.” Kester, her VCU colleague Dr. Jennifer Stewart, and Thomas Nelson Community College biology professor Martin Zahn were the originators of the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program.