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NMSU professor wins national award, inspires Hispanic, Native American students in science

New Mexico State University Regents Professor Elba Serrano will be honored this month for ?showing unparalleled dedication to excellence in science, mentoring and teaching.? She is among four educators across the country selected to receive the 2015 Distinguished Award from the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).


Head and shoulders of woman with blue scarf
NMSU Regents Professor Elba Serrano will receive a 2015 SACNAS Distinguished Award at the National Diversity in STEM Conference Oct. 29-31. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"This recognition is the most significant of my career,? said Serrano, ?because it originates from my students and only they can say whether I was their mentor or not.?

Serrano, a biology professor, will receive her award at the upcoming 2015 SACNAS National Diversity in STEM Conference Oct. 29-31 at the Gaylord national Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.

?I?m pleased to hear that Elba Serrano has received this recognition for her work with our diverse students in the College of Arts and Sciences,? said Christa Slaton, dean of the college. ?As a first-generation college student herself, she understands the challenges these students face in pursuing careers in STEM fields because she has faced the same hurdles and conquered them. This award is a testament to her commitment as a mentor and role model who has touched the lives of so many NMSU students.?

One of Serrano?s former students who earned his Ph.D. in biology at NMSU last year credits much of his success to her mentorship.

?Dr. Serrano identifies students? strengths and weaknesses and based on that, she works on the weaknesses but in a way that you don?t know until you see how your life has changed,? said Daniel Ramirez-Gordillo, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. ?What I like most about Dr. Serrano is that she gives honest advice. It is easier not hurt someone?s feelings even though that person needs to improve on something. She tells me the things I need to improve and that is something that I appreciate because it will only help me.?

Serrano, whose biomedical research focuses on neurosensory disorders of hearing and balance, and nanobiotechnology, has brought in more than $15 million in external research funding to the university. She has taught more than 2,500 students and mentored student research for more than 100 in her lab. Moreover, she has reached out to hundreds more at the university as the principal investigator of programs such as the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and BP-ENDURE Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience (BRAiN). Both programs focus on mentoring students to pursue science careers.

"I am deeply grateful to our NMSU undergraduate and graduate students for the opportunity to share my expertise and training, both as a researcher and as an educator," Serrano said.

Belkis Jacquez is a junior at NMSU and one of Serrano?s current BRAiN Scholars. After graduation, she plans to get a Ph.D. in neuroscience or biochemistry and become a physician as well as a researcher in the field of neuroscience.

?Going beyond her job, Dr. Serrano takes a personal interest in each of her students,? said Jacquez. ?She provides advice, knowledge and support through every step of my academic career. She helps me with scholarships, research questions and guides me through the process of applying for graduate school. I am very blessed to have her as my mentor.?

Serrano's distinctions include a Ford Fellowship, an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Lectureship on Women in Science and Engineering, and election as a Fellow of AAAS. She currently serves on National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Council, is a member of the Advisory Committee to National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and is co-chair of the NIH Advisory Committee?s Working Group on Diversity.

?Dr. Serrano is an inspired teacher who approaches teaching a freshman human biology course with the same enthusiasm that she brings to her graduate-level courses,? said Ralph Preszler, professor and biology department head. ?She is a dedicated mentor who has prepared her students for a wide range of career pathways.?

NMSU Executive Vice President and Provost Dan Howard was a faculty member in the biology department when Serrano began her career at NMSU in 1992.

"Dr. Serrano has few peers when it comes to mentoring students,? Howard said. ?She demands excellence of herself and expects no less in her students. Her remarkable ability to connect with her students and bring out their best has been an inspiration to me and to many other faculty members at NMSU and across the country."

The SACNAS Distinguished Awards program was established in 1997. Since then the organization has honored more than 80 scientists, educators and program directors for their commitment to the organization?s mission to assist Chicano/Hispanic and Native American scientists, from college students to professionals, to attain advanced degrees and pursue careers and positions of leadership in science.

"I am honored that this award comes through SACNAS because this community shares a commitment to strong and innovative science,? Serrano said. ?We believe that scientific strength can be achieved through a diverse workforce and we are mindful of our responsibility to use our training in service to society."

?Dr. Serrano has committed her life to promoting students of color in the STEM fields, said Cynthia Bejarano, NMSU Regents Professor who founded NMSU?s College Migrant Assistance Program (CAMP). ?Her caliber of scholarship, student mentorship and professionalism are what make her an exceptional colleague and someone to emulate.?

Ramirez-Gordillo is an alumnus of NMSU?s CAMP program, which assists students from migrant farmworker families in their first year of college. He is also the first NMSU student from that program to earn a doctorate.

?I worked in Dr. Serrano?s lab while studying for my masters and Ph.D. degrees,? Ramirez-Gordillo said. ?During those years I learned a lot from her. I want to be just like her because I know if I follow her advice, when I become a professor I will make a difference in students? lives.?