Excellence in Outreach Award/ Faculty: Christa Merzdorf, Spring Awards of Excellence, Academic Year 2021-22. Portrait of Christa Merzdorf

Christa Merzdorf

Christa Merzdorf, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology, received the Excellence in Outreach Award for faculty, which recognizes significant engagement programming and achievements. The award carries a $2,000 honorarium.

Merzdorf is the director of the Trails to Research program, an outreach program she started in 2015 that gives tribal college students the opportunity to be involved in undergraduate research. The program was designed to teach students in STEM disciplines, but more importantly, encourage the students to become excited about science and research. After the success of the pilot program, Merzdorf received nearly $1.4 million from the National Science Foundation to maintain the program and expand it. Merzdorf has been invited to present the results of her outreach work nationally at conferences and to other educators.

The centerpiece of Trails to Research is intensive weeklong courses where tribal college students research the early development of zebrafish. A hands-on approach teaches students the scientific method and helps them develop and test their own hypotheses on topics of their choice, which are often important to their communities. Merzdorf’s program has been defined as a steppingstone for future research experiences, such as undergraduate research at MSU, the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program, INBRE and the Undergraduate Scholars Program.

Since the program launched, more than 200 students have taken courses. The program has engaged around 20 teaching assistants and encouraged several faculty and staff from tribal colleges to take the course.

Merzdorf’s students have said that their Trails to Research experience was applicable to their futures, changed their attitudes toward science and more.

“(Merzdorf’s) dedication to bringing science to underrepresented minority students is outstanding and her impact on the next generation of scientists is highly laudable,” said Jovanka Voyich, Michael Franklin and Mark Quinn in a nomination letter.