Humboldt State University

HSU Professors’ Microbiology Award Will Boost Undergraduate Research in the Sciences

*UPDATE: Patty Siering passed away on December 3, 2017 after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. You can support her legacy by making a gift to the Siering/Wilson Research Endowment.

This summer, two HSU Biology professors established an award to support and encourage undergraduate student-led research in microbial ecology, a vast field of study that examines microorganisms within the context of their environments.

Biology professors Patty Siering and Mark Wilson established the Siering/Wilson Research Endowment with a $15,000 gift that will provide valuable research opportunities to undergraduate students and inspire collaborative research across scientific disciplines. They have also earmarked an additional $70,000 that will go into the endowment after the death of Siering.

Patty and Mark have served on the Biology faculty since 1998. For these two professors, microbiology is more than a career or a field of study. It’s a love story.

“Microbiology brought us together as a couple,” says Mark, holding Patty’s hand in their living room in Loleta, CA. The couple met at Cornell as Ph.D. students studying microbiology and have been together ever since.

“We were able to build a career together as professors, something that’s very difficult to do. We even had offices next door to one another,” Mark warmly reflects.       

As partners in life and work, Patty and Mark have collaborated on numerous research projects together, including a multi-year project aimed at studying microorganisms living in hydrothermal pools at Lassen Volcanic National Park. 

“Students are, by far, the best part of the job,” says Patty. “We’ve always enjoyed involving undergraduate students in research.” Providing research opportunities for undergraduate students is also the focus of Patty and Mark’s research award. 

The award will be open to all undergraduate students within the College of Natural Resources & Sciences and will help cover the cost of research supplies and services, which is the primary barrier to conducting scientific research at HSU.

“It’s difficult to answer some of the deeper questions in the field of microbial ecology because these questions are interdisciplinary in nature. That’s why the award gives preference to students who collaborate with faculty mentors in different areas of the sciences,” says Mark.

For instance, a student interested in testing water quality and pollution in a watershed may need to collaborate with faculty members in Environmental Resources Engineering and Biology.

This collaborative approach to science is particularly relevant since the explorer for which Humboldt County was named viewed nature through a similar lens. “Microbial ecology requires a holistic approach because microbes don’t live within a vacuum,” says Patty, “they occur within complex environmental networks. This is very much the same scientific method used by Alexander Von Humboldt, who recognized the natural world is integrated.”

As longtime faculty, Mark and Patty know that research opportunities are critical to helping students achieve their professional goals. “The ability for undergraduates to conduct research is profoundly helpful to their academic growth and career development,” says Mark. “Research experiences allow students to demonstrate they’ve written research proposals and conducted actual scientific research mentored by faculty in the College of Natural Resources & Sciences.”

They have spent years trying to answer some of the more challenging questions about the complexity of the natural world, but the couple now find themselves taking on an entirely new challenge together: This past July, Patty received a Stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis that forced her to retire from teaching in order to focus on her health.

Despite this new obstacle, Patty’s diagnosis hasn’t stopped her from focusing on helping future generations of biology students. The couple is cautiously optimistic, but they also feel a new sense of urgency.

“We had always planned to establish a research award, but my diagnosis has certainly accelerated our plans,” explains Patty. “The goal is to raise $100,000 for the Siering/Wilson Research Endowment, an amount that could provide over $4,000 to students each year.”

To have an immediate impact, $3,000 to 5,000 will be awarded this academic year thanks to additional contributions from Patty and Mark.

In their journey to make this award possible, they have also discovered the hidden benefits of philanthropy. “It has been surprisingly fulfilling for us to set up this award,” says Mark. “We hope to inspire other faculty members to establish their own awards and scholarships. If more faculty members created awards for students, we could change what’s possible in education.”

“Personally, I couldn’t have attended college without help from scholarships,” says Mark. “This award is a way to pay it back. It will help a lot of people for a long time to come.”

If you would like to help Patty and Mark raise $100,000, you can make a direct contribution here. If you have questions about giving, or would like to learn about other ways to support HSU students, visit loyalty.humboldt.edu, email the Office of Philanthropy at giving@humboldt.edu, or call 707-826-5200.

The call for proposals and instructions for proposal submission for 2017/2018 can be accessed at http://www2.humboldt.edu/biosci/students/scholarships.html . Proposals must be submitted no later than 5 p.m. on November 27.