CSUN Professor Hailed as Model for Minorities


A Cal State Northridge biology professor received a prestigious presidential award Thursday at a National Science Foundation ceremony in Washington, honoring mentors.

Awarded to 10 individuals and 10 institutions nationally each year, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring recognizes people, such as CSUN’s Maria Elena Zavala, who have increased participation of underrepresented groups in those fields, namely minorities, women and persons with disabilities.

The award was established by President Clinton in 1996 to recognize the importance of role models in developing talent among minorities.


“We must draw upon our nation’s full talent pool to maintain U.S. leadership across the frontiers of scientific knowledge,” Clinton said through a spokesman. “We honor these individuals and institutions who have contributed so much through their mentoring efforts to achieve greater diversity throughout the ranks of our scientific and engineering work force.”

Based in Arlington, Va., the National Science Foundation is a government agency responsible for promoting science and engineering through programs that invest more than $3.3 billion annually in about 20,000 research and education projects.

At Thursday’s reception, held in a downtown Washington hotel, top NSF officials presented Zavala with a commemorative presidential certificate and a $10,000 grant to continue her work.

“To get this honor was quite a surprise,” said Zavala, who has taught at CSUN for 12 years. “When I got my PhD 22 years ago, I was the second Chicano to earn a PhD in botany in the country. That was grim, and the statistics aren’t much better today.”

Zavala received her undergraduate degree from Pomona College and her doctorate from UC Berkeley.

At CSUN she created and directs two biology department programs that target minorities and has brought in more than $5 million in grants to support them.


Jim Dole, chairman of the CSUN biology department, said Zavala has done an outstanding job mentoring minority students and helping them earn research scholarships.

“She’s had so much influence on so many students,” Dole said. “She works daily with individual students, almost all with no history of college in their family. That’s tough because they don’t get a lot of support at home, so Maria Elena is like a surrogate mother, too.”