Biology Majors Are Valedictorian and Salutatorian of Spelman College Class of 2016
Spelman has long served as a pipeline for increasing the number of women of color in STEM
ATLANTA (May 20, 2016) – Spelman College valedictorian Faith Kirkland, C’2016, and salutatorian Bongeka Zuma, C’2016, were among the 483 members of the class of 2016 who took part in the College’s 129th Commencement on May 15. Kirkland and Zuma, both biology majors, illustrate the success of Spelman’s research-intense learning environment, and in particular, the Department of Biology’s efforts to graduate academically-accomplished, well-rounded students.
Spelman has long served as a pipeline for increasing the number of women of color in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The College has been designated by the National Science Foundation as one of six Model Institutions of Excellence for achievements in undergraduate science and math. According to the NSF, Spelman ranks No. 1 among undergraduate institutions from which Black women graduate and continue on to earn Ph.D.s in STEM fields.
Kirkland, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who served as the Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society president, and Zuma, a native of Bulwer, South Africa, discovered their passion for biology and research during their first year in Spelman’s biology program. Whether in the classroom or laboratory, the program offers students unique learning approaches that focus on individual research, critical thinking, and fluid, frequent faculty-student interaction that includes one-on-one instruction and professors working closely with small groups on lab work during and after class hours.
While a student at Spelman, Kirkland conducted cardiovascular and musculoskeletal research as well as research abroad on the sarcopenia (loss of muscles tissue) of aging. She aspires to open her own clinic offering physical, speech and occupational therapy. Kirkland will enter Emory University in fall 2016 to pursue a doctor of physical therapy degree and will explore a dual degree program with Georgia Tech in 2017. She gives credit to her experience at Spelman for transforming her passion for science into preparation for a career in health care and giving her the confidence to pursue a career in STEM, where African-American women constitute just 1.6 percent of professionals with bachelor’s degrees and only 1.4 percent of those with doctoral degrees.
“Spelman’s biology program is amazing at teaching students the importance of research and exploration and preparing us for success through encouraging curiosity, demanding excellence and helping us to recognize that our identity as Black women does not limit our opportunities or limit our possibilities to be successful in science-related professions,” said Kirkland. “The program and my experience at Spelman were [influential] in my development academically, personally and professionally.”
Zuma, who was selected as a member of the inaugural class of students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in 2007, will join University of Oxford in London in the fall to complete a master’s degree in medical anthropology. While at Spelman, she avidly pursued her interests in biological research. Following completion of her master’s degree, Zuma plans to combine her interests in health care and female empowerment by pursuing a doctor of medicine degree with a specialty in obstetrics and gynecology. She credits Spelman with preparing her for medical school and roles such as serving as a biomedical research assistant at Massachusetts Institute of Technology last summer.
“The biology department at Spelman is incredible,” said Zuma. “The professors are so knowledgeable, but what really sets the program apart is how they take a real interest in each student’s needs as a unique individual, give one-on-one support, and cultivate our confidence so that we challenge ourselves to grow intellectually and explore possibilities we might not otherwise pursue.”
Three of the top 10 graduates in the class of 2016 are biology majors. Kirkland and Zuma represent the hallmarks of the College’s biology program and its tradition of providing students with the tools to be confident, stimulate intellectual curiosity, and develop a strong sense of service and problem solving for complex world matters.
Mark Lee, Ph.D., associate professor of biology and chair of the Department of Biology, joined the department in 2002. He recognized there are motivated students like Kirkland and Zuma in academic departments all across campus. “As much as this is a biology phenomenon, it is also a Spelman phenomenon,” he said. “We’re not the only department that is doing exciting work and having these positive outcomes with students. This is not just a Spelman biology experience. It’s the Spelman experience, which means that we focus on developing the whole student, encourage curiosity, and impress upon our students that we care about them as individuals, but that we expect them to take their work seriously. This builds a strong bond of trust between students and instructors; students know we are there for them, and in turn, instructors can push students to learn and grow beyond their comfort zone due to that high level of trust.”
The Department of Biology, comprised of 11 tenured or tenure-track faculty, has dramatically increased the total amount of research dollars it has received over the last two years. From 2014-2016, $4 million in grants were awarded in comparison to $4 million between 2003-2013. The department receives substantial support for faculty development from sources such as National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. It recently received funding to explore building a quantitative biology community to broaden participation of underrepresented groups in science.
Spelman offers several approaches to teaching that distinguish the biology program. For example, faculty members have found that occasionally infusing creativity such as poetry, karaoke, puppetry and even dance into the curricula helps facilitate learning. The department has also integrated non-STEM subject areas including sociology and women’s health through popular courses such as The Biology of Women. Faculty spend as much time interacting with biology majors who may be challenged by the rigorous course work as they do with students who connect quickly, which is counterintuitive to the practice found in biology programs at many academic institutions.
Within the department there is an emphasis on project-based and inquiry-based learning, the use of social media as a modern pedagogical approach, and a requirement that every student be involved in independent research. The program’s diverse group of professors nurture students’ success, but also consistently challenges them to be unabashed about exploring new ideas through research and experimentation.
The volume of research activity in which biology students are engaged demonstrates the high priority placed on academic achievement. Assistant Professor Yonas Tekle, Ph.D., has conducted research and co-authored several papers with his students, one of whom was Ariel Lecky, C’2014. Their research debunked long-held views that amoeba such as Cochliopodium are strictly asexual, and also introduced a potential new model organism.
“Ariel Lecky, an exemplary research student, worked for three years in my lab and earned co-authorship by generating high-quality data that significantly contributed to the successful completion and publication of the project,” said Dr. Tekle. “This work is a testimony to the ability of our students to take on complex tasks and perform at levels expected from graduate students and research scientists.”
Kirkland is one of three biology majors to graduate Spelman as valedictorian since 2002: Debra Nana Yeboah, C’2006, studied at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School; and Bethany Strong, C’2007, went on to pursue studies at Harvard Medical School. Amanda Alexander, C’2014, earned a dual bachelor’s degree in math and biology.
“When I arrived at Spelman, I was rather shy and introverted but my experience there helped me to develop confidence,” recalled Kirkland. “My experience in the biology program was outstanding, and being mentored by so many accomplished women and men who invested in me built my confidence in who I am, and has built my leadership skills. I will take this sense of self with me and impact society and the world.”
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About Spelman College
Founded in 1881, Spelman College is a highly selective, liberal arts college widely recognized as the global leader in the education of women of African descent. Located in Atlanta, Ga., the College’s picturesque campus is home to 2,100 students. Outstanding alumnae include Children's Defense Fund Founder Marian Wright Edelman, Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer, Former Acting Surgeon General and Spelman’s first alumna President Audrey Forbes Manley, Harvard University professor Evelynn Hammonds, author Pearl Cleage and actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson. For more information, visit www.spelman.edu.