​As a child, Krishna Foster could often be found in the back of a classroom at San Diego State, head buried deep in coloring books as her mother, Dr. Frances Smith Foster, lectured to students on humanities and women's studies.

Suffice to say that the power of teaching was something ingrained in her nearly from the start.

Years later, the younger Dr. Foster would go on to earn her Ph.D. Then came the process of considering where to launch her teaching career.

She eventually gravitated to California State University, Los Angeles, largely because the university valued teaching just as much as research, allowing her the chance to directly reach students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

"I decided to come to Cal State LA because I wanted to train people for Ph.D. readiness," says the married mother of two. "In order to become a STEM professional and impact the world around us, you have to have access to higher education. The CSU is very good at that: You can come in at any starting point."

If her personal mission was to succeed, Dr. Foster knew she had to make her fields of expertise — chemistry and math, in particular — more welcoming, especially to students of color.

"There's not a lot of inclusive representation of different groups as scientists," Foster notes.

"So you can imagine being a new scientist—a chemistry major—and if you don't see people that look like you, it can be quite intimidating."

 

MORE Means More for Students of Color

Since she arrived at Cal State LA in 2000, Foster has sought grants for Minorities Opportunities in Research (MORE), which raises funding specifically to encourage students of color to achieve a doctorate in STEM fields.

MORE sponsors several initiatives, including one that exposes undergraduates to advanced research methods and links graduate students to doctoral programs at other Southern California universities.

Over the years, Foster estimates she has worked on grants that have raised upwards of $10 million.

Efforts like these have helped lift Cal State LA, and Foster, to national recognition. The campus was lauded among bachelor's- and master's-granting institutions in the U.S. as the number-one producer of Latino/Latina students who go on to earn a Ph.D. in science and engineering.

In August 2016, the nonprofit organization Minority Access Inc. named her a Minority Access National Role Model.

The accolades are nice, she says, but it's all secondary to giving her students greater access to a degree—and eventually, a job—in the STEM fields.

She especially wants to reach young women and men early in their college career, a pivotal time that can transform the lives of those who choose to pursue a Ph.D. 

"You want to see significant change?" she asks. "Let's turn you into an independent research scientist."

 

Growing a Friendlier STEM

Today's new graduates in math and science are among the highest paid when starting their first job.

That's little surprise, since the demand for employees in the STEM fields only continues to rise.

Even so, Foster knows that many students are too often reluctant to explore careers in STEM. Many never allow themselves the opportunity to thrive as scientists and engineers, dismayed by classes others have deemed daunting—even impossible.

 "I try to break down that barrier," says Dr. Foster. "I want to make science accessible."

Programs like the high school summer fellowship Project SEED and partnerships with local community colleges like Bridges to the Future actively court talented new students from the Los Angeles area.

Access to these opportunities is crucial, particularly to those who are first-generation college students, parents of young children, working while going to school—or all three.

"There's no doubt that our students are used to hard work," Foster says. "They do things balancing family, work and academics that are just beyond me. Hard work is not the problem … you just need to fill in the opportunity. Put the two together and expect miracles to happen."

 

A Passion for Teaching, Nurtured at the CSU

Donald Paulson, Ph.D., now retired after 36 years of teaching chemistry at Cal State LA, provided early inspiration to Foster with his inventive, animated teaching style. (Jumping on desks during lectures was not an uncommon method of emphasizing a point.)

But Dr. Paulson's unorthodox approach didn't just grab Foster's attention.

It was a transformative experience that proved to her that it was possible to laugh while learning about chemistry and math—a principle Foster applies nearly daily in her own teaching, which she describes as a mix of humor and praise, each designed to relieve the inevitable tension that comes from wrestling with formulas.

Simply put, Foster aims to humanize science. She strenuously objects, for example, to the practice adopted by some universities of slotting chemistry and math under the term "traditionally difficult courses."

"Chemistry and the math that supports it are both stigmatized," she says plainly.

Foster has seen again and again how changing her students' perception of these subjects can transform how well they do in her classes; MORE has sent more than 120 to Ph.D. programs in the last 20 years, including 10 from Foster's lab.

One even completed her doctoral studies at MIT; another earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Santa Barbara and is now a research scientist at Clorox.

Just as important, several students from underserved communities were inspired to earn their baccalaureate degree, and eventually became industrial chemists.

"I authentically believe that if you've made it to my classroom, you are capable of succeeding," she says. "All students willing to invest the work for success should be given the support they need to thrive."

 

Inclusive Excellence in Action

In summer 2017, Foster will assume leadership of the MBRS-RISE (Minority Biomedical Research Support-Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) program, a grant-funded pipeline that impacts students of color who want to become research scientists. In recent years, RISE students at Cal State LA have achieved a graduation rate of 90 percent.

Beyond her work with RISE, she continues to attract funding that sharpens her students' focus on their careers.

"They need reserved time to develop themselves, to be involved in research experiences, to travel to conferences. This all takes money."

The work of professors like Foster at Cal State LA is just one example of the CSU's mission of inclusive excellence in action; RISE currently supports 20 undergraduate students and 20 graduate students, the highest numbers in the organization's more than 40 years.

"You're taking a whole group of people and bringing them into the trained workforce to become professionals," says Dr. Foster. "To see that realized is incredibly gratifying."