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NRMN Key Personnel Meetingresearcher

Keynote Speech by Dr. John Matsui

By June 16, 2015No Comments

“An Outsider at the Table”

On Wednesday May 27th, John Matsui of the University of California at Berkeley gave a talk to attendees of the 3rd Key Personnel Meeting of the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), hosted at Boston College. The talk, entitled “An Outsider at the Table,” explored John’s philosophies of mentoring that have allowed him to build a successful program at UC Berkeley over the past 2 decades.

John Matsui at Boston College

Click the image above to view an excerpt from Dr. Matsui’s talk.


Dr. Matsui, who occupies a seat on the NRMN Executive Steering Committee, is a product of the California Community College and University of California systems. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dr. Matsui grew up in a low-income household in the flats of West Berkeley. His personal background and life experiences have driven what he has done professionally.

As Director and co-founder of the Biology Scholars Program (BSP) he has been committed to making biology at Berkeley accessible to all students with an interest. His goal has been to “level the playing field” for individuals who, like himself, do not fit the historical profile of success and to help them become leaders in their future science-related careers.

For more than 22 years, he has learned from over 3,000 program members how UC Berkeley can better train and support its undergraduate and graduate students in biology.

For his work, Dr. Matsui has received the 2014 SACNAS Distinguished Mentor Award and in 2015 the NSF Presidential Mentoring (PAESMEM) Award.

He can be reached via email at:


I. Who are the Biology Scholars Program Students?

“A Very Unusual population in STEM at Berkeley”


Since 1992, there have been:
3,000+ Berkeley undergraduate students participating in BSP, of which:
- 60% were underrepresented ethnic minorities
- 70% were female
- 80% were low income first generation students


“So this is a very unusual population in STEM at Berkeley, and maybe elsewhere as well,” Dr. Matsui begins after siting the above statistics about his Program.

“These individuals are [statistically] twice as likely to go on academic probation and be dismissed from the University. In fact, some see this as evidence that the Berkeley admissions policy is flawed. That is, that we’re letting in students that really aren’t ‘Berkeley material’. So it’s a selection problem, not a treatment problem.

However, the success of my so-called ‘less qualified’ low income, first generation students I believe supports another view…

On average, BSP members enter [Berkeley] with lower SAT scores and high school GPAs. Yet they graduate in equal percentages with biology degrees, and with… UC GPAss equivalent to biology majors-at-large.”


II. What criteria are used to select BSP mentees?

Potential to succeed, not necessarily the success to date

“It’s surprising to many that my students are at Berkeley in the first place. They feel like they don’t belong. They’re not viewed as Berkeley material, and it was surprising to my colleagues that they are in the sciences, intending to major in biology.

The phrases ‘undervalued and outsiders’ most aptly characterize my mentees; students who were not expected to succeed in and contribute to science.

Individuals coming from under-resourced high schools, who were the first in their families to attend college, and provisional admits who had to do Summer Bridge the summer before the Fall they entered Berkeley, these were my students. I went after them, because I saw great potential, because I was one of those students… the phrase ‘professional is personal’ [comes to mind]… This is what motivated me.

[My staff and I] realize that focusing on GPAs and SAT scores only, turns a blind eye to the circumstances that contributed to those low scores. It’s an incomplete story if you use a by-the-numbers approach. [It is still conventional] to use those numbers, especially GPA, once students get to Berkeley, to decide who is going to be a future researcher, or who should go on to medical school.”

The selection process involves both a written application as well as an interview. So, what are the qualities that my staff and I look for in our mentees?:

  1. Distance traveled – obstacles they had to negotiate to arrive at Berkeley in the first place
  2. Passion for science – we needed to see that “spark” as they describe their motivation to be in science
  3. Demonstrated commitment to service – not just once they finish, but service to one another (peer mentoring, near-peer mentoring, and the like)”

The commitment to service is “an important piece because I have 7 staff, over 450 students in the program,” says John.

“How do we use GPAs and SATs? They matter, but [only insofar as they provide] an entree to a conversation about the life circumstances that contributed to those low scores.

We use these standard metrics, the quantitative piece, as a way to begin a conversation about what the high school was like, how many hours of work, what other responsibility [the student was charged with outside of school], and so on. And so the story behind the numbers has been really critical to the mentoring success and the student success that we’ve seen.

Our focus is on the potential to succeed, not necessarily the success to date… we place [the student’s] success in the context of their life circumstances.”


III. How do we define and measure “success?”

“Resisting the pressure to conform”

“Since diversity programs began in the 1960’s, the scientific community has tried the same tried-and-true traditional list of interventions:

  • Academic support
  • Mentoring
  • Advising
  • Paid research internships
  • [etc.]

The result has been a perpetually small pool of competitively eligible under-represented minorities…

Why doesn’t this list work?

When we talk about explanations, most of the focus is on the students… their lack of motivation, lack of preparation, lack of aptitude; it’s a deficit model. Those are the explanations of… many across the country.

Or we focus on big picture problems… historical and societal inequity, structural problems.

What we don’t focus on is what we should be doing differently… We’re talking about ‘them,’ not ‘us.’

My working premise is that students are most often not the problem; I don’t buy into that deficit model. Rather, I focus on how I and my staff can more effectively advise/ mentor/ tutor students from under-represented backgrounds. We’re looking for a different way.

Critical to going from ‘concept’ to ‘practice’ is how we define success…

The standard measures such as grades, advanced degrees, and also entering a science-related career… these are good but incomplete indicators of mentoring success, in my opinion.

Beyond these standard measures, I really want leaders, innovators, and open-ended problem-solvers. And because I want that outcome, this really shapes how we mentor these students.

I know I’ve failed if mentoring results in dependency; if students need a program in order to succeed.

I want independent professionals, capable of building their own program… whether it be a research program, a student development program, whatever that means [for the mentee]… creating their own study groups when they go off to graduate school, or law school, or medical school.

[I want] individuals who will take the responsibility to help others do the same for themselves. [That] service piece [is] so critical.

[As I look back at my years of mentoring,] one of the things that I think is really important… is [to foster a culture of] shared responsibility. It’s a key to my mentees’ success.

I believe in providing information and opportunities, but it’s up to my students to meet me halfway, to take ownership and responsibility for their own success.

If all the program components and all the extracurriculars are developed for [the mentees] and handed to them on a platter, they become dependent consumers… that’s a really bad situation.

If they are given the [autonomy] to build their own opportunities, facilitated by us… this is invaluable to their growth as problem-solvers, innovators and leaders. And toward this end I’ve taken student input seriously.

I listen to my students. I create structured occasions to listen to students’ reflections on… their lives, their courses, and also the program.

For example we have a student advisory meeting where I get the input of students about what they want to see in the program, and they help me create it; monthly lunches with me so that over a meal, we talk about what’s going on in their lives; and also individual conversations on the run, in the hallway and also during my office hours.

What I hear is important… qualitative data [that influences] my decisions about what must remain and what must change about my program. It’s 23 years old. The program has not been static; it’s been dynamic, and the input from my student has kept my program alive [and] helped maintain the high levels of success that my students experience.

As with all of us, our mentees want to be ‘normal.’ In their case, ‘normal Berkeley students.’ Whereas this is understandable, this poses a dilemma [which is] captured by the phrase that I’ve used with many of them:


Success is about resisting the pressure to conform.


There’s great pressure for my students to be ‘normal Cal students,’ by starting off with Calculus instead of Pre-Calculus; by getting into a lab as soon as possible; by taking 2 technical courses and 15 units a semester, and graduating in 4 years. That’s ‘normal.’

But because 80% of my mentees are from under-resourced high schools, and are economically disadvantaged, and are the first in their family to go to college, taking courses, doing research and graduating may have to be on a different clock: their clock, rather than what others are doing.

This is one of the reasons many of my students graduate in 4 and a half, maybe 5 [years.] One [of my students] took 8 years to graduate… he was in and out of school because of family issues [and] financial issues. Today, he’s in medical school.


IV. Conclusion

“In summary, my staff and I advise, mentor and tutor students with all of the above in mind. We help students to get a sense of the gap between their academic preparation and University expectation; it’s a reality check.

[W]e also help students get an understanding of what they need to do to close that gap, and that may mean reduced study loads; loans instead of work study; and also doing fewer extracurriculars in the beginning.

[W]e start where each student is, [then] help them develop an individualized plan to get to where they want to be.”

Written by Andrew Simenson based on information provided courtesy of John Matsui 

Edited by John Matsui

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