College of Science & Engineering

Science needs YOU, University cell biologist tells students

Professor Blake Riggs reflects on training the next generation of scientists, his proudest accomplishment as a scientist

How did San Francisco State University Professor and Associate Chair of Biology Blake Riggs go from studying dolphins to becoming a cell biologist studying cell division (mitosis)? He’s not shy about sharing the story, and he makes sure to include his failures along with his successes. It’s important to include the missteps, he explains, to connect with students.

Riggs’ research lab studies how organelle movement and organization within cells influence cell function and activity. Specifically, his group asks how and why organelles are inherited by new cells and how these cellular components affect development of cell fate. Since joining San Francisco State in 2010, Riggs has mentored over 81 students — something even he was shocked to realize when he saw the tally.

Currently the faculty adviser of the Black Excellence in STEM (BE-STEM) student group, Riggs believes anyone can be a scientist. He sat down with SF State News to share how he’s trying to shift the STEM field.

As a scientist, what are some of your proudest accomplishments?

My proudest moments have to do with the training of the next generation of scientists. I want those scientists to look like our society. We have a lack of Black and Brown scientists, and that comes from a funneling down of opportunities. Many of the students I’ve trained would not have had opportunities in science. I’m getting [students] to understand that they are needed in science, they have the ability to do science and they can be rock stars in science. …

A mentoring moment I had is when I would have lab meetings with my students. We would meet and go over research. [Students] present their stuff and I’m critical and we go back and forth. And then my lab had a joint lab meeting with a lab at UCSF. … [After, a student says,] “Oh man, Dr. Riggs. This is just like our lab at SF State because the meeting was just like our meetings.” And I’m like there’s no magic there. They don’t wave magic wands. It’s not Hogwarts. They do science, and we do science. There’s a lot they have that we may not have, but what we do have — and they don’t have — is you. They want you.

What is your role or what are your goals as a mentor and educator?

That’s a big question. I believe that everyone has a place in science and I wish that people truly valued diversity, instead of using it as a talking point. I think the way we think about and practice our science is a bit backwards. We look for the people with the best grades. … We never think about the most creative person. What about someone who thinks about things differently? …

I try to encourage everyone to not give up, because unfortunately our training environment and the way we’ve practiced science in the past has been very exclusive. It’s something that I’m still battling. We’ve got a lot of world problems [like climate change]. If we’re going to solve these problems, we need everybody. Some of the best answers and best inventions come from marginalized communities. And since it’s Black History Month, I would say that Black people in general are natural-born inventors and creators. We’ve always been creators. Think of that talent pool that we’re not targeting, we’re not inspiring — that’s the issue.

You’ve talked about how it’s not enough to simply show a Black or Brown face or a woman scientist but that students need something to connect to. How do you connect with students?

I think it’s by being honest and being real. Students think that I became a professor because I was just the smartest person in the room and I was always just scholarly and things that I did work. I’ve been very honest. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been kicked out of labs. I had down times. To get from point A to B, I had to go through Z, Y, T and stopped off at Q for a little bit. Sharing your stories is where you connect with people. Being honest is where you connect with people. … What matters is getting students to recognize their potential and the awesomeness of themselves, and that comes from sharing your story.

In 2020, you were on a list of 1,000 inspiring Black scientists in America. What does it mean to be an inspiring Black scientist?

It’s an honor. In some ways it’s a little surreal because I’m on there with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Mae Jemison. These are people I see as being famous. They’ve done amazing things. I always say this: I may or may not discover something in science, but I can be that person that inspires the next generation of scientists …

[I don’t know] how inspirational you have to be to be [on the list]. … But it’s something that is necessary for our students to see. The sad part is you can go through your whole educational career and not see a scientist that looks like you and not see an educator that looks like you. To know there’s a list out there of a 1,000 people who look like you and are doing stuff — that can be very inspiring for that next generation. I try to live up to that.

Visit SF State’s Department of Biology website to learn more about Riggs and other faculty. Students interested in BE-STEM can email

Program trains the next generation of scientists and mentors

The Bridges to Doctorate program celebrates its 30th anniversary and its impact on University graduate students and the science community

In 1992, Michelle Alegria-Hartman (M.S., ’93) was a master’s student at San Francisco State University. She recalls frequently walking into the office of her thesis advisor, Biology Professor Frank Bayliss, to talk about science and her career. During one of these many conversations, Bayliss invited Alegria-Hartman to be the first student in what is known today at the University as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Bridges to Doctorate program.

Now the program is celebrating its 30th anniversary — with instructors and students reflecting on the program’s impact. The program was recently awarded another $5 million from the NIH to continue for another five years.

“The purpose of the program is to support underrepresented minorities in the sciences, primarily biology and chemistry, but we’ve had students from physics, math and computer science as well,” said Bayliss, who served as director of the program for more than 26 years before retiring in 2018.

Bridges is one of several programs that fall under the College of Science & Engineering’s Student Enrichment Opportunities (SEO) office. In the 1980s, underrepresented minorities comprised less than 4% of the Biology master’s students at SF State. The introduction of Bridges and other programs has raised that percentage to 33.5% in the last decade and almost doubled the number of Asian master’s students. Analysis of 491 master’s students supported by SEO programs between 1992 and 2019 showed that more than half went on to complete a doctoral program (Ph.D. or MD) after SF State regardless of their undergraduate grade point average. That pattern of success represents what was observed in individual programs like Bridges, say Bayliss and current Bridges and SEO Director Megumi Fuse.

Bridges alums have entered different sectors of science, with many working in industry as researchers or executives, while others have gone into academia, education, law and more.

Financial incentives are important

“The program [Bridges] gives them some minimal funding but enough so [students] can focus on their studies,” Bayliss explained. Current students receive a stipend over $25,000 for the year and have 60% of tuition covered. They also have access to research opportunities and support for conferences, career development and Ph.D. preparation. That’s critical. While Ph.D. science students may receive a yearly stipend, there are far fewer opportunities for such funding for master’s students.

“If you look at women and minorities, they’re not going to be coming from families that can just support them to get a master’s degree or Ph.D.,” explained Alegria-Hartman, who now works in private industry. “You have to have financial incentives.”

As a graduate student, Alegria-Hartman also held a separate research job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Bayliss helped her coordinate her research at Livermore so it could do double duty as her master’s research project, a move that helped her balance her school workload and financial needs. After SF State, she completed her Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis.

Twenty years later, LeRoy Robinson Jr. (M.S., ’12) partly came to SF State because he knew about Bridges and other support for master’s students.

“SF State was also one of the few institutions for master’s students where they are also offering some kind of financial support so I wouldn’t necessarily have to go broke to do my master’s,” Robinson said. He did his master’s thesis research with faculty at the University of California, San Francisco, and went on to pursue a Ph.D. at New York University.

Mentees to mentors

“It’s a part of my responsibility to give back to the community,” Alegria-Hartman said. “I literally always say this: I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for a lot of people stepping forward and becoming my mentor.  I believe mentors are key for students choosing a scientific career and obtaining their career goals.”

They also treated her like a colleague: SF State faculty would frequently share with her their recent scientific findings or interesting research papers. It felt like they were inviting her into the fold of being a researcher, which had a huge impact on Alegria-Hartman as a young scientist. They took the time to understand her goals and helped her navigate academia, grants, applications and personal decisions. Robinson says he had a similar experience.

“SF State was the only place, especially in the sciences, where I didn’t feel like the sole person of color that was in the room in conversations,” he said, noting that diversity and representation are important in his own career choices. In addition to being an SF State adjunct faculty member and lecturer, he is an associate medical director at a medical strategy agency (Prohealth) and a diversity, equity and inclusion associate editor for the journal “Women’s Health.”

Given SF State’s demographics, Alegria-Hartman thinks the University’s and Bridges’ impact is important for the health of the science field. The authentic care and education at SF State is key to giving a more diverse group of budding scientists the opportunity to blossom.

“It’s getting people in the pipeline. … Getting as many people as you can involved in the beginning of a scientist’s career and seeing if they really like science or not,” she said. “I think that really, really helps.”

Learn more about NIH Bridges to Doctorate and other similar programs offered by the Student Enrichment Opportunities office.

$2 million grant supports expansion of SF State Computer Science for All program

Collaborating with other CSUs, the University will help bring more high school computer science education to Northern California

In 2016, President Barack Obama made a national call for more hands-on computer science and math classes to prepare all students for the evolving workforce. San Francisco State University Computer Science faculty took the call to heart and started the University’s Computer Science for All (CSforAll) program in partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). A new $2-million grant from the National Science Foundation will expand the successful program to other California State University (CSU) campuses to bring computer science to more Northern California high schools (CS4NorthCal).

San Francisco State plans to establish a consortium with San Jose State University, Sonoma State University and Sacramento State University. The four CSUs will join forces with WestEd and more than 20 school districts with a goal of preparing and supporting 200 teachers and more than 25,000 high school students.

“Females and people from traditionally underrepresented groups are not well represented in the computing industry. The same pattern actually plays out in high school classrooms,” said Director of SF State’s CSforAll Hao Yue, a professor and associate chair of Computer Science. He explained that part of the issue is the lack of teachers who are specifically trained to provide rigorous computer science instruction and create an inclusive learning environment that can engage all students, particularly female students and students from underrepresented groups.

As part of the original CSforAll initiative, SF State was the first CSU to offer a computer science supplementary authorization. This allowed K – 12 SFUSD teachers to take a handful of classes and earn computer science teaching credentials. Many local participants were from high-need schools and were the first authorized computer science teachers at their schools, Yue said. Since 2018, the program has trained more than 100 K – 12 teachers, 61% female and 36% from underrepresented groups.

“The best way we can support teachers in a lot of areas in Northern California — from urban, suburban and even rural areas — is by supporting the CSU campuses to replicate and scale our successful program to their regions,” Yue said.

Roy King, a teacher at Raoul Wallenberg High School in San Francisco, participated in CSforAll a few years ago. He’s been a teacher for more than 20 years and has been at this school for five. CSforAll helped him shift from teaching math to computer science.

“Demystifying the code behind what the students are doing, like the technologies in their everyday life, and just to be able to open it up — I think that can give kids a lot of confidence,” he said. He’s also noticed that computer science is helping students get more interested in math.

“As a Black man, I’m trying to get as many underrepresented people into the tech world as possible. So women, our special education students, people of color … ,” he said. “I think [CSforAll] was just fantastic. I recommend it to everybody. It would have taken me on my own five times as long to learn all the material I learned in the program.”

Over the years, King has started to see a shift, with more girls starting to take high school’s computer science classes. More girls and students of color are sharing with him that they can see themselves in this space as a career.

In addition to the supplementary authorization, SF State’s CSforAll provides teachers with a professional teaching community. The program also trains SF State Computer Science undergraduates to be in-class teaching assistants. Working with University students, King gleaned a lot of insight about the tech industry and college that he could relay back to his students. 

Kami Sawekchim (B.S., ’22), a former CSforAll teaching assistant, taught at a high school in the Potrero district in a class that combined computer science and art. The school had a high population of students with learning disabilities.

“I think I was able to help give some inspiration into [why] computer science may be a really good career choice. A lot of these kids come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Coming from a similar background, I really related to them,” she said. She recalls that students were very curious about the job market, salaries, college applications, an internship she had at Genentech and more.

“I would say that I maybe don’t fit into the standard perspective of what a computer scientist is,” she said. “But that’s the point of why I chose computer science. I want to change the image of what people think [computer science] is.” Thanks to CSforAll, Sawekchim managed to land a full-time Genentech job and has already volunteered to tutor a local high school student.

Yue hopes that the new CS4NorthCal will continue this trend of expanding inclusive computer science learning environments. Addressing the lack of qualified teachers, he hopes the effects will trickle down to fixing the workforce pipeline problem by getting more underrepresented populations and women into the workforce.