CAPS Jump-starts Scientists


New program gives students from underrepresented groups an edge in the sciences

By Ruth Jacobs
Photography by Jeff Pouland


Courtney McIntosh-Peters ’14, left, of Washington, D.C.,
and Shamika Murray ’14, of Philadelphia, Pa., prepare fiddler crabs for dissection.

It was one of the hottest summers in recent memory in Maine, but for most students in a new program at Colby that included six weeks of summer instruction, the weather was one of the things that felt like home. “Everybody’s like, ‘It’s so hot,’” said Shamika Murray ’14, of Philadelphia, Pa. “I love it. It’s comfortable.”

Now the goal is to make sure these students feel just as comfortable in the lab.

This group, 13 members of the Class of 2014, came to Colby to get a jump-start on their undergraduate careers. They were the first to participate in a new program addressing the underrepresentation of students of color in the sciences. “The sciences are not very diverse,” said J. Warren Merrill Associate Professor of Biology Andrea Tilden, “and African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics are particularly underrepresented in the sciences—and not just at Colby but nationwide.”

Tilden, along with Associate Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Katz and other members of the science faculty, began looking at ways to address minority retention in the sciences almost a decade ago—first with understanding why many students of color were leaving the sciences after their first year at Colby. “We determined that much of the problem was just identifying with the sciences—feeling as though they are actually a part of the sciences,” said Tilden.

With that knowledge and a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Colby rolled out the CAPS (Colby Achievement Program in the Sciences) program this summer with students from underrepresented groups interested in science who had been admitted to Colby through the standard process.


The program has two primary goals: to get students comfortable working with faculty and “to fortify students academically and prepare them for their first-year science courses,” Tilden said. “This is something that would benefit any student who comes to Colby regardless of preparation. It’s just a matter of knowing the things that we do in labs at Colby that are different from what anybody does in high school.”

Students spent every morning in the lab with Biology Teaching Associate Tina Beachy ’93 learning how to use equipment and work with data in Excel. Depending on the student, some was review or much was new. Murray, who felt  she needed the additional preparation, saw the benefit. “That class is going to be so much help,” she said. “There’s just so much stuff that I didn’t learn in my high school that she’s teaching us now. Some people in the CAPS program know it, but I never learned it, so it’s like prep for when I get there. This is exactly what I needed.”

Even for those who learned some of the material in high school, the course was worthwhile, they said. “It’s a good refresher from what I learned,” said Courtney McIntosh-Peters ’14, who plans to become a pediatrician.

McIntosh-Peters and Murray teamed up in the afternoon lab section, which addressed the second goal of CAPS: establishing mentoring relationships. “That’s why you come to a small place like this—because you can interact with faculty,” Tilden said. “And many students come here very comfortable doing that, right from the outset, and many don’t. We wanted this group of students in particular to be absolutely comfortable talking to us and talking to any of their professors.”

In Tilden’s lab, McIntosh-Peters and Murray worked with brain cells in crabs. But at times they could also be found at the Waterville Farmers’ Market or the nearby Dairy Cone ice-cream stand with their professor.

In Professor Andrea Tilden’s biology lab, Shamika Murray ’14
and Courtney McIntosh-Peters ’14
look at crabs’ brain cells to see how fast the neurites grow.

For the students, relationships with professors weren’t the only important ones. The first-years quickly formed a bond. “We just became like a family in a sense,” said Alaba Sotayo ’14, who plans to become a neurosurgeon. “We all have problems, we get along—it’s just like a little family and we’re like, ‘We have to stay together during the fall.’”

With a group of friends already set before starting their first year, CAPS students had one less thing to worry about as they returned to campus in late August. Kimara Nzamubona ’14, who recently moved from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Portland, Maine, saw this as one of many reasons to participate in the program. “I thought it was a good advantage for me to be just ahead of other incoming students,” he said, “to learn more about the campus life, to know the professors better.”

CAPS has given students an edge, say participating students and faculty members—but this is just the beginning. Provided they choose to continue with the four-year program, they will be given a $4,000 stipend for research work either at Colby or in another lab for the next three summers. The HHMI grant also provides funding for speakers and social programming throughout the year.

All CAPS students are also invited to become part of an established program at Colby for students of color in the sciences: Colby Research Scholars (CRS). A separate but related initiative, CRS has students work in professors’ labs during the school year to gain experience and develop relationships with faculty.

Sotayo, the aspiring neurosurgeon, took advanced-placement biology in high school, spent three weeks every summer from seventh grade to sophomore year with the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, and last summer did an internship at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. But for her, working in the lab with Assistant Professor of Biology Josh Kavaler was a highlight.

“Surprisingly a lot is new, because in AP bio you get a little bit of everything,” she said, but “in the lab, it’s specific.”

She spent her afternoons sequencing specific DNA of mutated Drosophila flies. “Even though I’ve heard of some stuff before, like working with DNA,” she said, “I know about it. But then going to [the] PAX2 [gene]—different, specific genes—this is all new to me.”

And for now, Sotayo said there’s no question that she’ll stick with her scientific focus. “I love it, actually. It’s weird. What most people would find boring, I actually kind of enjoy—I don’t know why. It just works that way.”

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