Interview with Erica Siebrasse, February Volunteer of the Month
By Peggy Ni - YSP Volunteer
As the Director of Summer Focus 2012, Erica Siebrasse certainly has her hands full in the summer months when the high school students arrive at the Washington University campus to conduct research in the lab. However, responsibilities and tasks during the rest of the year are just as demanding. I asked Erica to describe all the behind-the-scenes work that make the summer a success, starting from the evaluation of the previous year's program up to the day the students arrive for research bootcamp.
Erica Siebrasse: The very first thing we do is the evaluation of the year before. In August of 2011 after the 2011 program was done, we met and talked about the program and what we wanted to do differently for 2012. Summer Focus has been running for awhile now; we have a lot of data from our participants and mentors. And we don't want to change too many things. It runs really well. The only things we want to change are in the areas we've identified as being problematic. Or, we can add something new that would be beneficial without taking away from other things. This year, we're really going to try and do a better job of facilitating communication between the tutors and mentors and students because that always comes up. It's definitely something that came up in 2011, that there's always miscommunication, and that's where problems with the students arise. In 2011 we had also added the college prep program, so we talked about continuing that, expanding it a little bit.
The next thing I'm responsible for doing is getting mentors, which we started doing in November. So I've been working on recruiting grad students or post-doc mentors, both new people and some people we've had mentor before. Then also late 2011, we – Jen and I – try to go out to a lot of city high schools and do a pitch. … We try and actually go there because for a lot of the county kids where the schools are really motivated and they have teachers pushing this, we don't need to go out there. For the city schools we definitely get better applications from those schools if we go. For instance, it's been several years since we had an application from Vashon, which is up in north St. Louis, and I went there and we had two applications and one was a really solid application. It's a little thing – it took me 30 min. to go out there – but it helps.
So now when things gear up, I'm trying to get the last couple of mentors. All the applications were due in early January, and so I've read all … 72 this year. One of the things we wanted to do better is increasing the diversity of Summer Focus. The way that DBBS does this and recommended to us is to interview more applicants. We don't want to take applicants that aren't quality applicants, but sometimes people don't do well on paper when they are certainly capable of doing well in the lab. And so we are definitely interviewing more people this year. We're interviewing 40 so that's probably 10 more [from last year]. Luckily for us, I think the applications this year were a little more diverse, and I don't just mean racial diversity, I mean diversity in schools we're getting, … cultural background, socio-economic background.
So you had asked me all the way up to bootcamp? We'll finalize mentors. We'll finalize students by early March. The only important other thing … is the mentor-tutor meetings … to go over what the summer is going to look like. My goal this year is to have the meeting be more structured, whereas before it was a question-and-answer session, expecting the mentors to come up with questions they may not be able to come up with. So I think I'm going to try and structure it more and be very clear about what our expectations are and … what they should expect from the students. People who have mentored before have very reasonable expectations; people who have not mentored before may typically over-estimate, and a couple of times under-estimate, the capabilities of the students.
Peggy Ni: With all the steps in this process, which would you say is the most difficult or arduous?
ES: I think they're separate. It took me a lot of times to read the applications. You can't really sit down and read them all in one entirety. You want to make sure you give every student equal opportunity to impress you. That's probably the most arduous. The most difficult is making sure we have enough mentors, which this year has not been much of a problem.
PN: Alternatively, is there a really fun part of the process?
ES: Same thing – I like reading the applications and what people have to say. One girl wrote about how she likes science writing. Who likes science writing?! It's fun to see all the interest in science from younger students. I really like the interviews too, actually meeting the students.
PN: Could you describe some positive comments and feedback that made you feel really excited about Summer Focus this year?
ES: I think 90% of the feedback is positive. If it's negative, it's very constructive negative feedback as in, "This is good but it could be better." The kids really enjoy doing Summer Focus. Even the kids who decide that science is not what they want to do almost universally say this was a wonderful experience, ie. "It helped me learn more about myself and helped me decide what I wanted to do." I think most the mentors get something out of it, especially the grad students, because they're teaching somebody that has no idea what they're doing. … You have to communicate your project in terms that a lay person can understand. … You really have to think about how best to explain your project, and I think that's a benefit many of the mentors have identified. You only think about the 16 kids that are in the program, but it really touches a lot more people.