Grad students gain from supervising summer RAP students
August 16, 2010

Editor's note: RAP intern Francisco Belsis will be a senior this fall at Brother Rice High School on Chicago's South Side. Graduate student mentor Jennifer Barnes is from Joliet. High-resolution photos are available for use with this press release at .

URBANA - What does a bright, motivated high-school student from an economically disadvantaged community get out of a summer doing scientific research in a University of Illinois laboratory with the College of ACES Research Apprentice Program (RAP)? That's obvious. On the other hand, how do graduate student mentors who work with these young people every day benefit? You might be surprised.

"One of the things master's and doctoral students say after they've graduated is that they wish they'd had more opportunity to supervise others. Giving graduate students the chance to mentor RAP students in their research laboratories is a very positive learning environment for both the grad students and the interns," said Faye Dong, head of the U of I's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN).

Graduate students know they'll be supervising others at some point in their careers, so they value the experience they gain mentoring RAP interns. And Dong knows that food companies value diversity and usually ask about an applicant's commitment to its practice during interviews. Working with the interns--who represent a broad spectrum of ethnicities, experiences, and economic backgrounds--enhances a graduate student's employment prospects, she said.

"This summer we have 12 FSHN labs involved in the mentorship program," she said.

The RAP 1 component is an intensive four-week career exploration and academic enrichment experience that targets high-school freshmen and sophomores from both underserved ethnic minority groups and schools located in mostly urban communities.

By the time RAP students acquire a FSHN mentor, they've already completed a four-week project-based team experience getting acquainted with food science by working on projects sponsored by some of the giants of the food industry. These companies--Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, ADM, and Oscar Mayer among them--have made large donations of money, time, and energy in the RAP program and its interns.

RAP 2 pairs a RAP apprentice with a grad student so "the mentor can lead a new scientist through the research process--developing their ideas, learning how to make a hypothesis and test it, analyzing their data and drawing conclusions, creating a poster and a presentation, and presenting their findings in scientific writing," said Heather Mangian, who leads the graduate mentors.

"It's much different from high-school science in which students do an experiment that always works because the teacher only has 40 minutes and it has to work. RAP 2 is a Cadillac research immersion experience, and it's really life-changing for both people," she said.

One RAP 2 intern who will testify to the program's benefits is Francisco Belsis, who will be a senior this fall at Brother Rice High School on Chicago's South Side. Assigned to doctoral student Jennifer Barnes in Professor Kelly Tappenden's lab, Belsis is working with piglets to learn about the role certain intestinal structures play in the absorption of nutrients.

"I'm giving the piglets different levels of pre- and probiotics to see which will help intestinal growth. It was a little intimidating at first, but Jennifer and I set it up step by step so it's easier," he said.

Barnes was impressed with Belsis from the moment he walked in. "He's very mature for his age, a quick learner. He asks very good questions, and I can tell that he's listening when I talk. If he needs clarification, he's not afraid to ask for it," she said.

Mentors learn to talk about science in layman's language so that they can explain their research to someone who's new to the idea, Mangian said.

"It's not as easy to mentor someone as you'd think. We've learned how important it is to get to know the person we're mentoring, and to find out how the interns think as we guide them through the project. It makes a big difference in the pace of their progress," she said.

Jesse Thompson Jr., the ACES assistant dean who heads the RAP program, says the graduate mentors have become an essential part of RAP, but RAP has also been a great classroom for the mentors.

"The graduate students learn things about themselves--the way they teach, how much patience they have, whether they're explaining things clearly. Sometimes things are clear to us, but nobody else knows what we're talking about," he said.

"The grad students are more in tune with the interns and spend more one-on-one time with them than most faculty members do. Mentors are often helpful in advising the students about college academics and careers, and the RAP students gain a lot from that. It's not unusual for an intern and mentor to stay in touch beyond the summer experience and throughout the academic year," he said.

Mangian knows the relationships formed during RAP 2 help the U of I land these bright, dedicated students. "Last year we all went out to a frozen yogurt shop, and I listened to the students talking. Their conversations weren't about if they were going to the U of I, they were talking about when they came, and who they were going to room with and where they were going to live. They felt comfortable here and already had a network of friends," she said.

"It's a win-win situation," Thompson said. "Every one of the graduate student mentors says that they've gained as much from the relationship as the RAP intern has. When these mentors become faculty members and have graduate students of their own, or take on supervision as part of their responsibilities within business and industry, we hope that they'll have more insight and be much more skilled at it because of the RAP mentoring experience."