COSAM News Articles 2023 December NSF awards STEM Education Individual Postdoc Research Fellowship to first recipient at Auburn University

NSF awards STEM Education Individual Postdoc Research Fellowship to first recipient at Auburn University

Published: 12/06/2023

By: Maria Gebhardt

Paula E. Adams, a post-doctoral scholar in the Department of Biological Sciences, is the first person from Auburn University to receive a prestigious STEM Education Individual Postdoc Research Fellowship (STEMEd IPRF) totaling $283,448. The two-year project, Understanding instructor and student concepts of race to measure the prevalence of race essentialism in biology education, is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Graduate Education with co-funding from The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation.  

“This is an exciting project that looks at how biology intersects with society,” said Adams, who is the primary investigator (PI) of the award. “It dives into how concepts of race are perceived in the classroom by instructors and students, plus the role traditional curricular materials play in promoting inaccurate understandings of race.”

Race is a social construct and socially understood racial categories are not supported by underlying genetic or biological differences. Adams work focuses on measuring the prevalence of race essentialism in biology education, which is a theory that biological characteristics are directly related to distinct race categories. However, race essentialism is not accurate, and has far reaching negative consequences that then extend beyond the classroom.

“This project has three distinct areas of impact,” said Adams. “We will examine the extent that race concepts are presented in the classroom, we will develop materials to improve STEM education, and our hope is to ultimately develop a research-based plan for cultivating competent citizens.”

“We will be sending out national surveys and conducting interviews,” said Adams. “Then, we will be developing recommendations on how to address this topic in classrooms nationwide as well as creating resources to aid biology educators in reducing this bias.”

The resources will be widely available online for educators in higher education to easily access. “Most forms of scientific training prepare students for scientific practice, but do not teach students how to use science to make sense of questions in daily life,” explained Cissy Ballen, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and mentor to Adams.

Biology instructors may be hesitant to cover topics that are outside of the traditional biology core content. Published work from the Ballen lab documented that instructors may fear pushback, and feel unprepared to cover topics they are not familiar with teaching, such as countering race essentialism. This work aims to fill those gaps in knowledge for biology educators. “Recommendations from this research will propel changes in biology education that target misconceptions of race,” said Adams. “If students and educators are not aware of these misconceptions and incorrect information, the bias could remain in education, unfairly impacting students.”

With the increased interest in genetics and human ancestry, this research has real-world applications.

“Students will be able to more accurately interpret news media about genetic-linked human diseases and genetic ancestry testing with greater awareness of this topic,” added Adams.

Adams joined Auburn as a postdoctoral scholar in Sept. 2022 after graduating with her doctorate degree in Aug. 2022 from the University of Alabama. She was selected as a 2023-24 SEC Emerging Scholar.

“I am extremely proud that Paula is the first person at Auburn University to receive this award,” said Ballen. “It shows that she is working on transformative research that addresses grand challenges in biology education.”

Adams will be seeking undergraduates from Auburn to help with the survey development for distribution to instructors during the Spring 2024 semester and surveys development for students during the Fall 2024 semester. If you are a current student at Auburn and interested in being part of this research project, contact Adams via email at


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