Cal Poly Pomona Professor and alumnus Steve Alas has received the 2023 Wang Family Excellence Award, which honors exemplary contributions to student success in the California State University system.
Alas, a tumor immunologist with expertise in genetics and DNA repair, has had a major impact on human lives far beyond his research lab. At Cal Poly Pomona, the veteran biologist has provided extraordinary service to thousands of students while diversifying the STEM fields and connecting California’s industries with invaluable untapped talent.
As a first-generation college student at Cal Poly Pomona, Alas (’94 biology) found a supportive community through the SEES program (Science Educational Enhancement Services), established by Chemistry Professor Emeritus and mentor Paul Hiemenz. The program provided a student cohort of support, faculty mentorship, and opportunities for summer research programs at universities across the country.
Today, Alas is in his 10th year as the director of SEES, working to eliminate barriers for underrepresented and first-generation students in the fields of science and engineering. Serving more than 700 students each year, SEES provides a community of peers, professional development, academic support, referrals to fellowships and scholarships, and summer orientation for incoming freshmen, among many other services. These efforts have helped narrow the graduation gap for participating underrepresented students from 17.6 percent to 3.9 percent.
During Alas’ tenure as SEES director, 70 students have been accepted into Ph.D. programs, 52 into master’s programs, 36 into professional programs (MD, DDS, pharmacy, veterinary medicine) and nine into credential programs.
“There are far more who have received scholarships, acceptances to summer research programs and internships. Their success is what I am most proud of,” he said.
Cal Poly Pomona President Soraya M. Coley described Alas as the “epitome of a teacher-scholar-mentor-leader” who is committed to transforming students’ lives.
“He is a strong advocate for students, especially first generation and underrepresented students in STEM. His leadership in the development of innovative, meaningful and diverse learning experiences has enriched the academic lives of our students,” Coley said.
The Wang Family Excellence Award recognizes four outstanding faculty members and one outstanding staff member in the CSU who, through extraordinary commitment and dedication, have distinguished themselves through exemplary contributions and achievements. Their activities advance the California State University’s mission, contribute to student success, bring benefit and credit to the CSU, and enhance excellence in teaching, scholarship and service. Each recipient receives a $20,000 award.
In addition to leading SEES, Alas established new support programs for graduate students (BioTiER) and for STEM students in science, engineering and agriculture (SPIRES). To support retention and success, Alas created a multifaceted onboarding “STEMpire” experience for first-year science and engineering students, including advising for at-risk students. And for the past decade, he has run the CSU Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (CSU-LSAMP) program, which provides professional development, research fellowships, conference travel and financial support to underserved students pursuing graduate degrees.
Alas has secured more than $2.5 million in federal grants to propel his students’ success. Among many other accomplishments, he was the principal investigator for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to establish Cal Poly Pomona’s Biological Training in Education and Research (BioTIER) program in 2013 to support master’s students pursuing STEM careers. Most recently, he acquired a $1 million NSF grant for the SPIRES program (Scholars Program in Research, Education and Science) to engage underrepresented scholars in the STEM fields through fellowships, career training and workplace psychology workshops.
In 2015, Alas coordinated with other centers across campus to launch the summer Discovery Camps for kids ages 5 to 17. About 800 campers attend science camp, computer camp, robotics camp, entrepreneurship camp, horse camp and imagination camp each summer, which also provide teaching opportunities for Cal Poly Pomona students.
“My role in life is to facilitate the success of all those around me,” Alas said. “Helping students succeed and watching them celebrate their accomplishments is what I enjoy the most.”