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$1.5 million NSF award to faculty team allows for advancement in STEM programs

A $1.5 million grant courtesy of the National Science Foundation has been awarded to a select team of Texas Woman’s University professors aiming to develop the school’s graduate biotechnology program. The team consists of Drs. Juliet Spencer, Stephanie Pierce, Jessica Guillon and Diana Elrod.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a federal agency created by Congress to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense,” according to the NSF website. The agency has an annual budget of $8.5 billion and serves as the main source of funding for federally supported research among colleges and universities across the country. This recent grant will be the third project at TWU NSF has supported, granting the school a total of $4.9 million since 2019.

This award will feed directly into the university’s up-and-coming Professional Science Master’s (PSM) in Biotechnology program. Biotechnology is the study of applied technology with the goal of improving everyday life, Spencer said.

“[Biotechnology] might be seen through the development of vaccines, cleaner fuels, more resistant crops,” Spencer said. “You’re trying to use science to create benefits for mankind.”

The grant will also help launch the Scholarships and Co-Curricular Activities Leading to Excellence in the Biotechnology Workforce, or TWU-SCALE. The program aims to prepare students for positions in professional biotechnology by providing lab, management and business skills.

When Spencer had arrived at TWU from the University of San Francisco where she had participated in its biotechnology program, she proposed that TWU start one of its own. She said that she thought it would be a great opportunity and highly beneficial for students in Texas.

“The thing is, it differs from our traditional master’s program in the biology department,” Spencer said. “It’s really focused on developing skills for the workplace so that when students graduate, they are literally ready to join a biotech company.”

Spencer said that the funding will also greatly financially support students enrolled in the biotechnology program and much more as the amount will allocate over the course of six years.

“The money [will also] do things like support some of this extra programming support, putting on activities where the students can get together, support hiring a halftime person to help us with some of the management and logistics of it, but the vast majority of the money will go directly to the students in the form of scholarships,” Spencer said.

Pierce said that she is grateful for the program’s inclining success despite the difficulties COVID-19 has brought and how the year-long online schooling allowed for more flexibility for the students.

“Honestly, I feel like, in some ways, the pandemic has almost benefited the biotech program and, in turn, then sort of benefited the university,” Pierce said. “A lot of our biotech students work full-time jobs and needed those online courses. So, after making a majority of the courses [the program] in the evening, online courses have really allowed for a bigger, more diverse population of students.”

Spencer and Pierce said that they are both excited about the recent growth the program has been making and that they look forward to the many ways it will continue to expand.

Gakenia Njenga can be reached via email at

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