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Majoring in Excellence

June 27, 2012

Erika Villamarin began her college career as a business major only to decide it wasn’t challenging enough.

“Since I wasn’t especially good at physics and knew that the courses were really difficult, I switched my major to engineering science,” she says. “I wanted to see what I could do.”

A fast learner, Villamarin did well enough in her new field to attract the attention of BMCC Science Prof. Friedrich Hoffman, who was doing research on solar cells—another area that Villamarin admits she knew nothing about. Never one to shy from a challenge, she signed on with Hoffman last January as a research assistant and mentee.

Since then, Villamarin has immersed herself in the study of solar energy, measuring the efficiencies of solar cells, conducting related materials research, and presenting her work at conferences.

She meets with Hoffmann twice a week to review her progress, plan next steps and discuss her career and professional goals—all the things that go into a productive mentor-mentee relationship.

“Starting from scratch”

“I’m always looking to learn new things,” says Villamarin, who grew up in Ecuador, the child of teachers.

“Professor Hoffman has challenged me to take on more and more responsibility and given me the confidence I need to present my findings before large audiences.”

Although his mentee “started from scratch,” Hoffman isn’t surprised at her progress.
“She is hard-working and intellectually curious, and has quickly become familiar with an area that was totally new to her,” he says.

“She’s not only conducting experiments, she is learning how to present her research to others. These are skill sets that she’ll be able to use regardless of what area of engineering she goes into—or even if she chooses a different field altogether.”

Villamarin is one of several students currently participating in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, which provides research assistantships, academic support and financial stipends to minority students in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  

After graduating from BMCC this June, she’ll continue her studies at City College, en route to earning a Bachelors degree in environmental engineering.

“History has shown that a disproportionate number of students in the STEM fields make it to a certain level and then fall by the wayside,” says Sefton Bennett, BMCC’s LSAMP activity coordinator. “So LSAMP aims to help keep them motivated by providing a broad-based support system.”

Mentoring is at the heart of the program. Carlo Fervil, with a double major in mathematics and actuarial science, has been working with Mathematics Professor Marcos Zyman on research into group theory over the past two years.

He will enter Baruch College this fall. “Prof. Zyman is always there to answer my questions and talk me through any problems,” he says. “It’s a joy to work with him—he’s a tremendous motivator.”

But from Zyman’s perspective, Fervil doesn’t require much motivating.

“We’ve done several projects together—but when I say ‘we,’ I really mean Carlo,” he says. “He is tremendously independent and driven and constantly comes up with his own ideas about how to approach a problem.”

Finding his own way

Science/math major Omari-Kalid Rahman will transfer to Hunter College this fall and pursue a Bachelors degree in statistics. Ultimately, he says, “I hope to earn a PhD in economics or statistics, conduct research and teach at a university.”

His mentor, Mathematics Professor Abdramane Serme, who is the coordinator of the LSAMP program in the Mathematics department, has no doubt he’ll achieve whatever goals he sets. “He’s an exceptional student,” he says.

While Serme is generous with his time and advice, Rahman says, “he never explicitly tells me what to do. If I run into a problem in my work, he’ll point me in the right direction, but it’s up to me to find the solution.”

Serme has mentored some 15 LSAMP recipients over the past four years and says that their achievements “are especially impressive because they pursue their studies while holding jobs, sometimes raising families, and commuting to classes—often with little financial resources.”

While the students are enriched by their mentorships and the support they receive from the LSAMP program, “the college benefits as well. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them.”

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  • Program fosters participation of underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and math
  • Students conduct research in collaboration with faculty mentors
  • Will continue their education at senior colleges in the fall

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