Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program Celebrates 30 Years of Inspiring Change in the Life Sciences

Group photo of BUSP friends and alums
For 30 years, the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program has created opportunities in life sciences education and research for over 1,500 students. Over the Picnic Day weekend, BUSP friends and alumni celebrated the program. David Slipher/UC Davis

When Christopher Lopez was in middle school, he was diagnosed with two learning disabilities. Often, it took him longer than his classmates to learn course materials.

“I had one teacher who was totally fed up with me,” recalled Lopez. “She was annoyed and she just didn’t have the patience for me.”

The teacher told Lopez that his future job prospects were slim. Lopez was shattered. The lack of reinforcement in the classroom led to a lack of confidence. Throughout the rest of middle and high school, he felt like he would never amount to much.

That all changed when Lopez came to UC Davis and joined the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program, an enrichment program aimed at underrepresented, economically and socially disadvantaged, and disabled students interested in life sciences research. Through BUSP, Lopez studied muscle mechanics in the Functional Molecular Biology Lab run by Professor Keith Barr, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior. But he also joined the broader BUSP community, which over the course of 30 years has created opportunities in life sciences education and research for over 1,500 students.

“I can’t tell you a particular time, but all I know is I grew out of my lack of confidence and actually started pursuing things wholeheartedly and actually loving learning,” Lopez said. “I can fully say I feel like a scientist.”

Lopez shared his transformative story at the BUSP 30th anniversary and reunion, which was held over the Picnic Day weekend.

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Christopher Lopez poses with BUSP staff
UC Davis student Christopher Lopez, center, stands with BUSP director Connie Champagne, right, and the program's academic advisor Heather Lawrence, left.

Fostering a diverse classroom

Of the mentors and leaders of BUSP over the years, Professor Emerita Merna Villarejo, Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, is largely responsible for founding and launching the program in 1988. Until that point, she’d noticed something about the student populations in her upper division UC Davis classes. They were largely homogenous in appearance.

Merna Villarejo
Professor Emerita Merna Villarejo, BUSP founding director, shares memories about the formation of BUSP at the program's 30th anniversary event. David Slipher/UC Davis

“My classrooms looked very much like the town of Davis in those days and I rarely saw a black or brown face,” said Villarejo, who became the associate dean of the Division of Biological Sciences in 1987. “In that role, I met the freshmen biology majors and discovered that the class was reasonably diverse,” she recalled. “So what happened between entry and junior biochemistry?” 

Villarejo spent the next academic year investigating the noticeably sparse retention of underrepresented students in upper-level biology classes. The process culminated in a day-long retreat on June 16, 1988, with the intended purpose of creating a comprehensive program to ensure disadvantaged students wouldn’t fall through the cracks and would receive educational and emotional support.

On that day, the formal idea for the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program was born.

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Reflections on a first year

Humberto Izquierdo was among those in BUSP’s inaugural class. Born in Guatemala, Izquierdo moved to San Mateo County when he was around 12-years-old. He studied biological sciences at UC Davis and like many current “BUSPers” was recruited into the program.

“For me, it was integral that it gave you a sense of community,” said Izquierdo, ’93 B.S. in Biological Sciences. “I was struggling; they were struggling, but we had support.”

He noted that the experiential learning aspect of BUSP was present from that first year. He spent one year working in a research lab on campus.

“It taught me a very important lesson, that I really didn’t want to be in a lab,” said Izquierdo, who is now the agricultural commissioner of Napa County. “There’s a lot of things that you can do with science that provide you a foundation to build a career.”

The focus on the first two years of the undergraduate experience is integral to the program’s successful model. 

“We know that the most difficult time for any student…is the first two years of college,” said Robert Urtecho, dean of science engineering and math at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia. Urtecho was a Ph.D. student studying plant biology at the time of BUSP’s launch. He soon got involved in developing the program’s curricula and mentoring students.

“What we noticed was BUSP worked,” said Urtecho, who earned a Ph.D. in plant biology from UC Davis in 1996. “Retention was good, success was good.”

The BUSP model left such an impression on Urtecho that he continued using it following graduation, discovering that the model was applicable to other institutions.

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Old snapshots
At the 30th anniversary event, BUSP friends and alumni shared photos from yesteryear. David Slipher/UC Davis

A porch light to guide you home

At the 30th anniversary celebration, attendees shared anecdotes and memories, mingling with one another in the Life Sciences Courtyard. Alumni and friends voiced thoughts on BUSP in a video booth, dined on savory appetizers and perused photos from yesteryear.

“BUSP taught me that enthusiasm for scientific research and being exactly who you are are critical and equally important in pursuit of the truth,” said Danielle Zumpano, a BUSP alum and a current molecular, cellular and integrative physiology Ph.D. student.

Zumpano graduated from the College of Biological Sciences in 2014 with a B.S. degree in neurobiology, physiology and behavior.  

For Lopez, who will graduate with a B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology this spring, BUSP has given him the confidence to further pursue science. After graduation, he’ll take a gap year before pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. dual degree. In the interim, he’ll work in Professor Gage Crump’s Lab at the University of Southern California Stem Cell research center.

While the anniversary was a day of reflection on the past, Connie Champagne, the director of BUSP, noted that the need for BUSP is as strong as it’s ever been. To the alumni present at the 30th anniversary, she added, “Visit. We will leave the porch light on for you.”  

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BUSPers pose for a photo
BUSP alumni and friends shared stories about the program and its long-lasting effects at the 30th anniversary. David Slipher/UC Davis