The Power of Science Posse
by Lawrence Goodman
When Keven Macareno was a ninth-grader in New York City, he learned about a college scholarship program. He scribbled “Posse,” the name of the program, on a Post-it note and stuck it on his computer.
Macareno grew up in Brooklyn. His mother came to the United States from Mexico and worked as a nail technician out of her home. His father left the family when Keven was 2. Keven and his mother were close, serving as each other’s support system. “She was the first one to tell me to do well in school,” he says.
He decided early on that the only way to get what he wanted in life was to go to college. Soon after starting high school, he bought a stack of books on the college admissions process. “These are the schools I want to go to,” he told his guidance counselor, showing her the dog-eared pages. “How do I get in?”
Macareno already had a career goal: become a neurosurgeon like his idol, Ben Carson. In junior year, the Post-it note still stuck to his computer — an emblem of his determination — Macareno applied to the Science Posse program in New York.
Science Posse, like the other scholarship initiatives run by the Posse Foundation, selects students with exceptional academic and leadership skills from 10 major cities for full-tuition four-year scholarships to leading partner colleges and universities. Science Posse has an additional selection criterion: It seeks students interested in studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics, the so-called STEM fields.
In December 2015, Macareno learned he’d been accepted into the Science Posse program. According to the Posse Foundation’s website, some 5,000 students applied for 110 spots that year. It was harder to get into Science Posse than Harvard.
“When I found out I got into Posse, it felt like a dream,” Macareno says. “No matter how many times I retold the story of that night to my teachers, friends and family, I relived the same emotions of accomplishment and comfort. Everything that could possibly hold me back from getting a scholarship or going to college failed, and I succeeded.
“Most of all, I couldn’t wait to find out who the other scholars going to Brandeis were — the people whom I would build a family with.”
‘I never would have dropped out if I had my posse with me’
The Posse program has special ties to Brandeis. Educator Deborah Bial ’87, H’12, created the Posse Foundation in 1989 when she was working at CityKids, a youth-development program in New York that helps kids get into college. Bial discovered that even after students she worked with gained admission to top colleges and excelled their first semester or year, some still dropped out. She tried to figure out why. “I never would have dropped out if I had my posse with me,” one of the students told her.
It dawned on Bial that these students were one another’s greatest resource. If they attended the same college as a group, they could support one another all four years. Bial believed an ideal posse consisted of 10 students who could bond and help one another overcome whatever obstacles they faced. “It’s scary enough going to college as it is,” she says.
Bial focused on students who might be overlooked by the traditional college-admissions process but who possessed the ability and skills to thrive at the nation’s most elite schools. Even students with academic and leadership promise often fell below the radar of college recruiters at urban high schools with limited resources and opportunities.
The Posse program is open to anyone, regardless of race or socioeconomic background, but because it draws from urban areas, Posse Scholars tend to be students of color, low-income or the first in their families to attend college.
All Posse applicants go through a selection process as rigorous as any college’s, maybe more so. They must be nominated for the scholarship by their school, a community organization or a youth group. They must submit grades, scores, essays and recommendations.
Applicants also go through what Posse calls a “dynamic assessment process,” in which they must demonstrate leadership skills, resourcefulness, creativity and self-motivation. They lead discussion groups with their peers on thorny, controversial issues, and, in the final step of the selection process, 20 finalists are interviewed and observed at the same time, knowing that only half of them will land the scholarship.
In 2007, Bial won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” for her innovative ideas about broadening college access for underrepresented groups by emphasizing leadership skills. Three years later, President Barack Obama donated a portion of his Nobel Peace Prize money to the Posse Foundation.
Reversing a troubling trend in science
Brandeis admitted its first group of Posse students in 1998. The students, who were from New York, could pursue any liberal arts major. Time and again, though, Posse Scholars who spoke eloquently about wanting to major in the sciences and showed a fierce determination to become a doctor or a scientist soon switched to majors outside the STEM fields.
Irv Epstein, the Henry F. Fischbach Professor of Chemistry, thought this might be due both to the level of difficulty of Brandeis science courses and to the low number of students from underrepresented groups in those courses. From his decades of experience teaching chemistry, he knew a university student’s first grade in an introductory science class could come as a shock. The average grade in most introductory research-university science courses is a B-minus. Posse students are used to receiving As in high school.
Epstein believed the Posse students pursuing STEM majors were troubled by how they were doing compared to students who weren’t in the sciences. “They’d look at everyone else,” Epstein says, “and think, ‘What’s going on here? They’re doing fine in English or economics, and I’m killing myself and getting worse results. Why don’t I just switch into another field?’” Epstein thought if he could replicate the liberal arts Posse program in the sciences, STEM students would feel less alone and more supported.
Posse students from underrepresented groups also felt isolated in science classes, says program co-director and associate provost for academic affairs Kim Godsoe. “Before Science Posse, there might have been only five or six black students in a chemistry lecture class of 300,” says Godsoe. “Many Posse students would immediately experience feelings of imposter syndrome, and they would question whether they belonged there.”
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In 2006, Epstein won a four-year $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to develop a Posse program specifically for students from the New York City area interested in the sciences. (The grant was renewed in 2010.) Associate professor of biology Melissa Kosinski-Collins, who has published widely on science education, believed incoming Science Posse students needed exposure to college-level science before the chaos of Orientation in late August and the transition to a full schedule of college classes.
Enter Science Posse “boot camp,” a 10-day science immersion program Kosinski-Collins created to introduce students to the rigor and expectations of college-level science classes at a premier research university. Boot camp is not remedial. It is intensive, helping incoming students develop the confidence to persist even in times of struggle. Godsoe describes boot camp as a “vaccine” — an inoculation that prepares each posse for the challenges ahead.
The first Science Posse of 10 students arrived on campus in 2008 against the backdrop of a national shortage of students of color studying science. According to a report by the nonprofit American Institutes for Research, only 13 percent of undergraduate STEM degrees were awarded to Hispanics and African-Americans in 2009, despite the fact that these groups make up 28 percent of the U.S. population.
Posse Success Stories
The Science Posse program was created to help reverse this troubling trend. And it’s a success. Most Brandeis Posse STEM students graduate with a degree in a science major and stay in a science-related field. Program alumni are enrolled in medical schools, working as researchers in labs, earning master’s degrees, teaching science in schools, or working at drug and biotech companies. Usman Hameedi and Gloriya Nedler, both ’12, graduates of the first Science Posse, are among the program’s success stories.
So far, nine other colleges, including Middlebury, the University of Wisconsin, Texas A&M and Smith, have replicated the Science Posse program following the example of the Brandeis model.
“The Science Posse program is extraordinary in its success,” says Godsoe. “The program demonstrates the power of having a cohort of students working together and focused not only on their individual success but the success of the group.”
As one Posse Scholar told her, “Posse works because we make sure no one is left behind.”
The hardest academic challenge
In June, Macareno and his posse, all Class of 2020, get off Amtrak’s Acela Express train and take a shuttle bus to Brandeis for science boot camp. On the first day, they gather in a classroom in the Abelson physics building, the air conditioner cranked so high everyone is shivering. (Science buildings are notoriously cold, the students will learn.) Some of them already own Brandeis sweatshirts and water bottles, and they bring along the scientific calculators they were given the day before.
Kosinski-Collins, who earned a PhD at MIT, tells them college science is profoundly different from high-school science. With equal parts candor and caring, she sets high expectations, describing the intense workload. The students know that they will be held to lofty standards and that she will support them.
Later in the day, they gather around a long lab table in the Shapiro Science Center, in an area Kosinski-Collins calls Hufflepuff — a nod to one of the houses at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School. An array of equipment is scattered before them — pipettes, balances, bottles of acetic acid (vinegar) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). There are also aluminum foil, Kimwipes, Scotch tape and Ziploc bags.
The students’ assignment is to build an air bag. When acetic acid combines with sodium bicarbonate, they produce carbon dioxide. The students must figure out how much of each chemical to add to fully inflate a quart-size Ziploc bag. But they also have to protect an egg placed inside the bag. This is where the foil, tape and extra bags come in. Along with the cushion of air, these items can be used to keep the egg from cracking when they drop the bag from the Science Center steps, about 15 feet above the ground.
There’s an important catch. Several months earlier, at a meeting in New York, the students got the same assignment. They also completed lab reports describing the quantities of chemicals they used and how they arranged the materials inside the bag to protect the egg. These lab reports are now handed out to different students. They have 10 minutes to repeat the earlier experiment using the reports as a guide.
It’s an important lesson in communication skills and reproducibility. An experiment is valid only if others can carry it out and get the same results. In science, precision and clarity are everything.
The students quickly realize this. The lab reports aren’t clear enough to provide much guidance. “Why did you have to make this so complicated?” one student asks the original author of a report.
“No time for complaining. Do what you got to do,” her peer tells her.
Kosinski-Collins announces time’s up. The task hasn’t gone so well for most. “I think I’m going to go into the humanities,” jokes Samia Tamazi. “Philosophy’s always an option.”
Tamazi grew up in Queens. Until recently, her parents ran a small business that removed asbestos and other environmental hazards from buildings. Tamazi attended Francis Lewis High School, where she took AP classes in biology, calculus, U.S. history and English.
She says she chose Brandeis because of its students’ commitment to social justice. She also liked their work habits. “No matter what time of night it is,” she says, “there were people in the library.”
In 1988, Tamazi’s mother was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania. Her parents, immigrants from a small rural town in the Dominican Republic, wouldn’t let her go. They knew little about the American college system, Penn’s prestige or the scale of their daughter’s accomplishment, Tamazi says.
They also expected their daughter to remain close to home in Brooklyn. “She was a girl,” says Tamazi. “She wasn’t supposed to go away.” Her mother enrolled at a local community college but never graduated.
What she couldn’t get for herself — a college education — Tamazi’s mother wanted for her daughter. Now that Samia is at Brandeis, studying to become a doctor, her mother’s message is clear: “You better make the most of it.”
Tamazi wants to make her mother feel proud. “She gave me so much. I want to give back,” she says.
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A shoulder to cry on
Posse student Rose Archer feels homesick. Her mother, who works as a nanny, emigrated from Trinidad. They’re very close. Among other things, Archer misses her mother’s home cooking — curried goat, brown stew chicken and the rice dish pelau. Sherman Dining Hall can’t compete. It’s also strange to be in a suburb like Waltham after Newark, New Jersey. “Oh, my God,” she thinks one night. “There’s no one outside at 2 a.m. playing basketball.”
Even as a young child, Archer says, “I really liked to know how things worked, so I asked a lot of questions.” Some adults found her annoying, but she didn’t let that bother her. She took an immediate liking to school. “I liked work,” she says. “I liked learning things.” She spent afternoons watching “Between the Lions” and “Cyberchase” on PBS. In middle school, she was bullied by other students because she spent a lot of time on schoolwork. She began slacking off to fit in.
But things changed at Newark’s North Star Academy charter school, where she attended high school, which puts a heavy emphasis on academics. Archer’s teachers took an interest in her academic ability, and once again it became socially acceptable to be smart. By the time she graduated, she’d decided she wanted to study computer science. Last summer, she interned at the digital-media company Audible.
By midweek, boot camp’s rigor is beginning to take its toll. Most of the students find the material manageable. But the relentless pace of classes and lab assignments is testing their limits. There’s also a chemistry exam that they stay up all night studying for.
High school wasn’t nearly as academically demanding as boot camp, Tamazi says. She got extra time in class to complete her work. “You can get away with a lot of things in high school you can’t get away with in college,” she says. But she’s adapted, developing new study habits. She starts making flashcards. She rewrites all her notes, and then she rewrites them again. When she gets stuck on a concept or an idea, she explains it to herself out loud.
Archer starts keeping a calendar of her classes and assignment due dates. The challenge, she realizes, is “how to get my work done in a timely manner that leaves me with enough sleep and energy for the next day.” She deals with her homesickness by turning to fellow Posse member Kalunda Anthony for support. He’s her shoulder to cry on. “He’s like the father figure in the group,” she says. “He’s my rock.”
Meanwhile, Keven Macareno is on his way to a profound realization. In high school, he was the one everyone came to for help with schoolwork. He was used to working on his own and getting even the hardest problems right. But the techniques that made him an academic standout in high school aren’t enough in college. At boot camp, the night before the chemistry exam, he comes out of his room to show the rest of the group his results on a practice problem. They don’t have the same answer he has. He goes back to his room and figures out where he went wrong. On the train going home after boot camp, it hits him — “I was being stubborn,” he says. “I was like, ‘I can still figure this out by myself.’ I was going to have to ask for help.”
This realization will give him a huge advantage when school starts in late August. While other students are trying to solve problems on their own, he’s already learned to seek out professors during office hours, ask teaching assistants for help and, most important, rely on his posse.
‘More prepared for college’
The final assignment requires each of the students to present research synthesizing at least three peer-reviewed journal articles in the sciences at a public poster session on campus. Most of the students have been exposed to some type of scientific research, but only for an audience of high-school teachers, fellow students or parents, not at this level. This presentation will be to Brandeis professors and graduate students in the sciences. Science Posse sophomores, juniors and seniors also attend, forging connections among the class years.
Dozens of people mill about the Shapiro Science Center atrium, examining the student presentations, which are summarized on oak tag and mounted on easels. There are posters on the effects of atypical antipsychotics on schizophrenia, artificial intelligence, and the development of machine learning in smartphones.
Archer presents a poster on yoga’s effectiveness in treating PTSD. The research focuses on a clinical trial that measured the chemical effects on the brains of Haitian children who had experienced trauma. Doing yoga proved beneficial. Archer beams and responds confidently to questions about her poster. She’s still a “homesick puppy,” she says, but there’s been a major change. “I can see myself being here for the next four years.”
Macareno’s presentation summarizes a potential new method of diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease by analyzing eye-movement patterns in healthy subjects, semantic-dementia patients and people with Alzheimer’s. He concludes, “The eye movements reveal Alzheimer’s disease compromises visualization abilities, due to the critical damage in the frontal lobe.”
“I definitely feel a lot more prepared for college,” he says.
Two months later, with the school year underway, Macareno is thriving. He is taking biology and chemistry classes, and, though he says they’re tough, he feels he can handle them. His study habits have changed. He’s much better at organizing his schedule, he says, “and finding time to sit down and review the material.”
He’s forged strong ties with the other members of his posse. They study together. They support one another. His posse, he says, feels like family.