Campus: CSU, Northridge -- September 7, 2000

CSUN Professor to Receive Presidential Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Cal State Northridge biology professor Maria Elena Zavala was recognized by the White House Thursday, Sept. 7, for her outstanding work as a mentor to young people in science.

Zavala will receive her honor as a recipient of the "2000 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring" at a special ceremony held by the National Science Foundation the Westin Fairfax Hotel in Washington D.C. The award includes a $10,000 grant to CSUN to further enhance her work.

Zavala is one of 10 individual recipients who will be honored by the National Science Foundation.

"To get this honor was quite a surprise," Zavala said. "When I got my Ph.D. 22 years ago, I was the second Chicano to earn a Ph.D. in botany in the country. That was grim, and the statistics aren't much better today," she said. "There aren't that many of us out there who love to be researchers, teachers and professors. We have a responsibility to show our students that it's possible and help them along the way."

In a letter to Zavala notifying her of the award, Judith S. Sunley, assistant director of the National Science Foundation, said the "honor recognizes your outstanding achievements and contributions to mentoring Award recipients serve as exemplars in the national effort to develop more fully the nation's science, mathematics and engineering workforce."

The foundation administers the awards program for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The program is designed to demonstrate the Clinton administration's recognition that mentoring and role modeling are important to the development of talent among groups underrepresented in the science, mathematics and engineering fields; namely minorities, women and persons with disabilities.

Jim W. Dole, chair of CSUN's Biology Department, called the honor to Zavala "absolutely stupendous."

"If anybody deserves this award, she does," Dole said. "She has worked her heart out for many, many years and built one of the strongest programs for minority students in the country."

Dole said Zavala's work in building the department's Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) and Minority Biomedical Research Sciences (MBRS) programs has been "fantastic." He said she has brought in more than $5 million in grants to support both programs.

Dole said the response was overwhelming when he solicited letters to nominate Zavala for the award.

"Every one of her former students I talked to said that of course they would write in her support," he said. "Many of them said 'For the first time, I can do something for her.' That's a testament to how they perceive her."

In addition to the award from the White House, Zavala is also being recognized this month by the Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley as part of its National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. She is one of 10 Latino scientists being honored by the museum for their "remarkable contributions to science and technology."

She has also just become the first woman elected as president of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

Zavala, a plant biologist, recalled told by high school counselors to take typing instead of the science and math because Latinos didn't become scientists or mathematicians.

"I was lousy at typing, but I loved math and science, and I'm glad I didn't listen to them. I love what I do," she said. "We have a lack of people of color who seek Ph.Ds. and are in academic positions. We have to try to provide opportunities for students so that they learn that they can succeed and learn the sciences and math, and can go on and get graduate degrees."

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