Cal State Northridge biology professor Steven Oppenheimer will be recognized this fall by President Obama for his outstanding work as a mentor to young people.
Oppenheimer will receive a “Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring” during a yet-to-be-scheduled ceremony at the White House. The award includes a $10,000 grant to further advance his mentoring efforts.
“This is a tremendous honor, but the honor really belongs to my students and my colleagues,” said Oppenheimer, a Northridge resident. “They are the ones who do the work and have supported me all these years.”
The Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring is given to individuals or organizations in recognition of the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students studying science or engineering, particularly those students in underrepresented communities. This year, a total of 22 people from institutions around the country are being recognized.
By offering their time, encouragement and expertise to young people, “mentors help ensure that the next generation of scientists and engineers will better reflect the diversity of the United States,” said a White House announcement.
“There is no higher calling than furthering the educational advancement of our nation’s young people and encouraging and inspiring our next generation of leaders,” President Obama said in the announcement. “These awards represent a heartfelt salute of appreciation to a remarkable group of individuals who have devoted their lives and careers to helping others and in doing so have helped all of us.”
In addition to the mentoring awards, the White House also will be honoring more than 85 individuals with the “Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.”
Candidates for the Presidential Mentoring Award are nominated by colleagues, administrators and students from their home institutions. The mentoring can involve students at any grade level from elementary through graduate school.
Northridge biology professor MariaElena Zavala, who received the Presidential Mentoring Award in 2000 from then President Bill Clinton, nominated Oppenheimer.
“He has mentored so many students and has a method for getting students involved in research in his lab,” she said. “A lot of his students happen to be minorities who have gone on to get advanced degrees.
“But his work doesn’t stop at CSUN,” she continued. “He also works with teachers and K-12 kids in science education. His efforts have significantly increased the number of faculty who work with K-12 kids and educators to increase the number of kids interested in science. He really is making a difference, and that should be acknowledged.”
Oppenheimer has been garnering recognition as a teacher and mentor since he first became a professor at Cal State Northridge in 1971.
CSUN’s Center for Cancer and Developmental Biology, of which Oppenheimer is director, has drawn national attention not only for its studies into the catalysts for the spread of cancer, but for the opportunities it presents students—graduate and undergraduate—to take part in cutting-edge research and to present their findings at professional conferences around the country.
For more than a decade, Oppenheimer has spearheaded an effort to spark an interest in science, math and engineering among elementary, middle and high school students. The key to that, Oppenheimer has said, is to give elementary, middle and high school teachers proper training so that when they teach, the subjects are not boring.
To that end, Oppenheimer created “The Journal of Student Research Abstracts.” Now in its 14th year and paid for by Cal State Northridge and the Van Nuys Airport, the annual journal features the research of hundreds of science students from kindergarten through 12th grade and has inspired thousands of youth to pursue careers in science. The journal is now listed in the Library of Congress and is distributed internationally.
Oppenheimer also organizes Northridge’s annual Student Research Symposium that features the work of about 100 local students in grades kindergarten to 12 who take part in a regional effort led by Cal State Northridge faculty and students to encourage young people to consider math and science as possible future careers.
With his research focusing on cancer, Oppenheimer recognizes the questions that haunt lay people regarding the disease. He opens his “Biology of Cancer” class each fall to the general public for free, saying he is fulfilling what he believes is a university’s “obligation to reach out to the community as much as possible with respect to issues that are really critical for the health and well being of the community.”
Oppenheimer said his mentoring and teaching efforts are all serving a need in the community.
“The future security, health and welfare of the United States depend on producing new generations of top scientists,” he said. “That starts with mentoring kids in K-12 and college and getting them on the road to becoming part of the critically important science research workforce of the United States.”
Over the years, he has mentored hundreds of students who have gone on to receive doctorates or medical degrees from some of the nation’s top graduate institutions, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Stanford. His former students have become research scientists, doctors and even science teachers.
He says what keeps him going after nearly 40 years in academia are his students.
“When I grew up as a kid in Brooklyn, I had everything. I enjoyed my education and I enjoyed my life,” he said. “But then I look at these kids, the kids I work with now. Some of these kids come from families that are really economically deprived, who’ve never had much education or access to education. These kids have brought themselves up and excelled. They work 40 hours a week and still excel in their classes and their research, and they end up at places like Harvard. You want to know what impressed me? It’s these kids.”