Biological Sciences Professor Steve Alas has helped thousands of students enter graduate school and launch careers in STEM fields.
These Cal Poly Pomona students, many from modest means and the first in their families to attend college, have participated in programs Alas oversees and gained the confidence and technical skills critical for graduate school or their chosen career.
“He’s a champion for our students,” said Associate Provost Sep Eskandari. “He channels all his creativity and all his energy for students.”
For his work, the California State University Chancellor’s Office is honoring Alas with the Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award. The award recognizes faculty for their leadership in improving student success and outcomes in areas with low success rates or equity gaps.
It comes with a $5,000 award. The biological science department will be awarded $10,000 for professional activities. Honorees will be recognized in October during the CSU Graduation Initiative 2025 Symposium in Sacramento.
A committee led by CSU faculty selected the 19 honorees after reviewing more than 230 nominations from across the system.
Alas said when he read the letter telling him he was an award recipient he was in shock.
“I stared at the letter for quite a while because of what it meant,” Alas said.
The letter and the award, he said, represent the appreciation of the CSU system, which means a great deal to him.
However, the award recognizes one person and “leaves out everybody around us that helped,” Alas said. “I stand on the shoulders of 50 people across my lifetime. What I think of is all the people from my mentor to my mom. This is all of our award.”
Alas, who just began his 15th year teaching at Cal Poly Pomona, is director of Science Educational Enhancement Services (SEES), a “support and engagement program serving historically low socioeconomic, under-represented minority students in the College of Science.”
SEES provides mentoring programs, paid fellowships that allow students to carry out research with faculty, a First Year Experience course for freshmen and workshops to assist students enrolled in highly challenging courses. Students also find a supportive peer community with a common interest in science.
Chemistry Professor Paul Hiemenz established SEES in 1987. As a Cal Poly Pomona student Alas participated in the program where he found the support that prepared him to enter UCLA’s graduate program and the camaraderie of fellow students who assisted each other as they made their academic journeys.
In Hiemenz, Alas found a professor, a mentor and a father figure.
“Dr. Paul Hiemenz took us all under his wings,” he said. “I would not be here today without him.”
Alas said he could never repay Hiemenz for all he did but leading and growing the program his professor founded is a way of honoring him.
Alas earned his bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at Cal Poly Pomona, and his interest was in genetics and genetic engineering. He studied and did research at UCLA before moving on to City of Hope. He was a successful researcher there, but Alas wanted to teach at a CSU and at his alma mater in particular where he could also continue conducting research.
His dream came true when he joined the CPP faculty. In 2013 he was named SEES director.
Alas also oversees the university’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and was instrumental in establishing Discovery Camps, a summer program that draws students from K-12 schools where they have fun learning about topics such as computer and app programing, robotics, science, entrepreneurship, along with working with the university’s Arabian horses.
Such a program exposes younger students to science and can spark interest in science careers, Eskandari said.
Alas has been awarded grants to fund fellowships where students sharpen their research skills. Among those grants and fellowships are the National Science Foundation Biological Training in Education and Research (BioTiER) Scholar program and the five-year, $1 million National Science Foundation Scholars Program in Research, Education and Science (SPIRES). Alas is the principal investigator for both.
By the end of the five years for SPIRES, 125 student fellowships will have been awarded, said Alison Baski, dean of the College of Science.
A recipient of this year’s Provost Excellence Award in Service, Alas is constantly working in support of students and understands the effect the programs have on student success, Baski said.
“He knows how impactful it was for him,” she said.
Terri Gomez, associate vice president for student success, said Alas helps students achieve their potential and “provides the resources they need so they really soar.”
“He’s tough on students and demands excellence,” Gomez said, adding “he inspires them and believes in them. He helps them achieve excellence.”
The nomination materials submitted included student letters. One wrote that Alas is someone who has not forgotten what it’s like to be a student and looks at situations from that perspective. Another student wrote that when someone becomes discouraged or they experience the emotional pain that comes with the death of a loved one, as she did, Alas listens, helps students pick themselves up to continue their journey, and offers encouragement along the way.
Alas said he does what he does because he loves his alma mater and its students.
“This isn’t my job. This is my home,” he said. “When I walk around campus, I see myself in the students.”