SISTEM one-on-one from Rochester, New York, with Dr. Robert Osgood, Associate Professor of Microbiology in the department of Biomedical Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT): "A novel approach of rethinking STEM education ".
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SISTEM one-on-one from Rochester, New York, with Dr. Robert Osgood, Associate Professor of Microbiology in the department of Biomedical Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT): "A novel approach of rethinking STEM education ".

Robert Osgood

Dr. Osgood, joined the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in 2008 as an assistant professor, but currently holds the rank of associate professor of microbiology in the department of biomedical sciences. His path to RIT began with the completion of a B.S. degree in biology at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Southern Mississippi and a 3.5 year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Pediatric Dentistry. Dr. Osgood's curiosity in science began as a child with an interest in small things after receiving a microscope from his mother as a Christmas gift. This curiosity led him to pursue undergraduate research on the effects of acid rain on Brassica rappa. After completing the undergraduate degree, he worked as a clinical lab technician and later enrolled in graduate school because of his curiosity over the ability of many of the clinical isolates of Pseudomonas aeruginosa to be resistant to the majority of antibiotics tested against them. In graduate school he characterized isolates of Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae implicated in causing either the death of illness of marine mammals. Prior to his appointment to RIT, he enjoyed a 23 year career as a medical technologist that ran prior and concurrently to graduate school and a subsequent 3.5 year postdoctoral fellowship 
in oral microbiology at (UAB). While at UAB, he studied the mutans streptococci, organisms strongly implicated in the initiation of dental caries in humans. At the RIT he continues to research the development of rapid and precise quantitative methodologies to accurately count cariogenic organisms of the oral cavity. Dr. Osgood also studies probiotics and bacterial causes of middle ear infections in children. Noted for his student teaching, motivation and mentoring, his research has been published in several scientific journals.

Q:   Please tell us about yourself and the career path you took. Have you encountered any obstacles on your path to pursuing your studies in a STEM field, and if so, how have you generally handled your challenges and adversity?

Osgood: Sure.  I am associate professor of microbiology at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester New York.  I believe my path began as a scientist and specifically as a microbiologist when my mother bought me my first microscope when I was in elementary school.  As you may know, it is during this time that natural curiosity about your surroundings is already in full bloom.  The microscope expanded this curiosity into a microscopic world that I never knew existed before and I followed this scientific curiosity through high school and a 22 year career as a medical technologist before pursuing a second career as a professor.  I was very fortunate when pursuing my studies not to encounter much resistance along the way.  I was an older student in graduate school so life had taught me a lot about how to carry myself and handle challenges.  I had a great doctoral adviser and I loved learning, but I wasn’t afraid to speak up during the few times when it was necessary. As far as handling adversity, I made sure that I carried myself in a respectful way and it seemed to go a long way for me.

Q:   Can you share a few words about your area of teaching and research (please tell us about the importance of your research in simple terms)?

Osgood:  The courses that I teach tend to be microbiology based. Specifically, I teach courses in infectious disease, clinical microbiology, clinical microbiology laboratory and oral microbiology.  I am currently developing a course in anaerobic microbiology.  The courses serve the students enrolled in various medically related tracts of study within the College of Health Science and Technology.  I research two of the most commonly encountered infections of childhood, dental caries and (biofilms of) otitis media, each bearing public annual costs in the billions. The caries research is important and thankfully in recent years has been brought into the public eye because of newly discovered connections between oral health and overall systemic health. This important connection was uncovered by the 16th Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. David Satcher. Now that this important connection is clear and its importance established, efforts can now be made to properly educate the public about the importance of proper and long term care of the oral cavity its connection to preventing chronic diseases such as atherosclerosis, type II diabetes and other health disparities.  The annual burden of otitis media (middle ear infection) is 3.3 billion dollars. The significance of my research in this area lies in studying biofilm formation and ultimately how to either prevent or reduce its role in causing disease.  Success at the basic science level hopefully will translate into clinical practice.

Q:   Can you elaborate on your multi-disciplinary research partnership with Dr. Marcus Alexander?

Osgood:  Sure, this partnership is very new and we are still defining exactly what we will be able to work on.  Marcus has an MBA and a skillset in human-computer interactions.  My expertise lies in microbiology and molecular biology.  So you may see that we have different backgrounds and skills but the friendship will keep us talking and watching how technology can bridge our two worlds and provide some opportunities for us to work together.  I guess the jury is still out with a project that we both can pursue. I will be happy to elaborate as soon as we get a more tangible project identified.

Q:   In your opinion, what are the top 3 reasons of the low STEM participation of specific groups such the African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, and women in the US?


Reason #1:  Overwhelmingly, individuals of these groups are 1st generation college students and they are focused on completing a degree that they feel is a guaranteed lead to successful employment.  We oftentimes lack a support group that is able to encourage us when we pursue unfamiliar career destinations.  Consequently, we pursue careers that we are more familiar with such as nursing, education and even medicine and dentistry, although the numbers of us who pursue this is disproportionately very low.  The numbers that graduate and move forward into their careers is even lower, unfortunately.

Reason #2:  Generally speaking, we are not sufficiently exposed, especially early on, to many of the classical STEM disciplines, let alone any of the newly emerging fields of STEM.  Because of this we know little about the STEM disciplines and any of the peripheral careers associated with them.  Furthermore, often we are unaware of what preparation is needed to enter many of the STEM disciplines.

Reason #3:  Math skills and critical thinking skills continue to sit atop the list of factors that discourage and disqualify us from pursuing STEM careers.  This disconnect is a longstanding one with little if any progress made over the years.  This is not encouraging but should command our highest attention, as the landscape of STEM disciplines could be ours for the taking.

Q:   How can we increase the number of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, and women in STEM? 

Osgood: I have always believed that the number of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, and women in STEM could be increased by the same mechanism that allows others to enjoy the numerical success that they do in regards to pursuing STEM careers. What we need is early exposure (middle school) to STEM disciplines and careers, ACTIVE engagement and follow up by an institutionally mediated support system that encourages first time engagers to stay the course.  It’s ironic that historically speaking, members of the African-American, Latino, Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander men and women have made contributions in STEM throughout history, however today we struggle to become part of the STEM culture for varied reasons.  Another way to increase the number of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and women in STEM is for those of us who have already been successful to reach out to help the next generation of STEM hopefuls in any way we can to be successful.   

Q:   What recommendations do you have for African-American, Latino, Native American, Alaska Natives Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and female students who want to pursue STEM studies?

Osgood:  My first recommendation is that you prepare yourself for the struggle it will take for you to pursue STEM studies.  Realize that there will be individuals, close to you and not close to you who may not share your enthusiasm to be successful.  Do not let this discourage you from your journey.  If you have a dream of having a successful career in a STEM discipline, protect that dream and nourish it.  Don’t leave it up to chance to come to pass, but do what you already know you have to do to ensure that it will pass.  Secondly, I would say to find yourself a few mentors who will challenge you and not let you off the hook so easily when times get hard.  Each mentor can and should be different in regards to providing you with what you need.  This is one time when it is true that “it takes a village” (of mentors)  to see you through. Your mentors do not have to be the same gender, nationality or even look like you.  They only need to have your best interest at heart.  Seek mentors who will teach you the importance of work/life balance, some who will stay on you until you publish and others who will teach you the importance of networking and valuing relationships. There are many other types of mentors that you will encounter and need along the way so keep your eyes open.  This STEM journey has a complicated landscape with expected and unexpected obstacles.  You will need the experience of someone who has already made this journey to help you.  Lastly, treat EVERYBODY YOU MEET WITH  THE UTMOST RESPECT.  Fellow students, people who are less fortunate than you, people that you may think are beneath you ---- take time to talk to them and show them that they are somebody valuable and that they matter.  For example, the secretary that you greet every morning can get you into meetings with the Chair or Dean that would normally be impossible, because (s)he knows which meeting(s) will run short and can grant you access and allow you the few minutes you need to speak with the Chair or Dean.  The janitor can let you in when you lock yourself out of the office or lab, or bring you food from another meeting when you are running low on funds and they are aware of this.  You may never know how others who didn’t or won’t get the opportunity to pursue their dream, take pleasure sometimes in seeing you pursue yours. Sometime when they see you struggle, they will pull for you cheer you on and give you an encouraging word when you need it most. You may find that when YOU are successful, THEY feel successful because they have silently and unknowingly to you, joined your efforts to be successful.  You may never know who you are inspiring if you take your STEM career challenge seriously!!!

In addition, what advice do you have for those professionals who are already in STEM careers?

Osgood:  Find a way to give back.  You may not have money to give, but your words can be priceless to someone who needs to hear YOU speak them.  If you can read to a class for 10 or 15 minutes, DO IT !!!  The STEM landscape will continue to be a lonely place if we all don’t do what we can.  In the words of Robin Roberts, “we all have something” (to give).  It’s amazing how the smallest of things can cause the biggest changes.  As a microbiologist, I know this well.  Think back to how just an encouraging word made a difference to you, or how a hug showed you that things really aren’t that bad.  We all have some of these little things to hand out either daily, as the opportunity presents itself, in a formal setting or anywhere else we encounter either a struggling STEM student or someone who has shown an interest.  The fruits that you now enjoy in your STEM career came at a price.  The least amount that you owe the game is to mentor others if you can to keep the pipeline strong.


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