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Chico State

Science and Support: Kristen Gorman’s Holistic Approach to Mentorship at Chico State

Kristen Gorman poses in front of her class.
(Jason Halley / University Photographer)

This story is one in a series spotlighting eight exceptional faculty members who were recognized with 2023–24 Outstanding Faculty Awards, selected by the University’s Faculty Recognition and Support Committee.

These awards—among the highest honors at Chico State—celebrate faculty excellence in the categories of Outstanding Professor, Teacher, Academic Advisor, Research Mentor, Faculty Service, Lecturer, Lecturer in Bringing the Profession to the Classroom, and Early Career Faculty. 

Outstanding Research Mentor Award: Kristen Gorman

The Gorman Lab in Holt Hall is more than just a place where undergraduate and graduate students become familiar with research and prepare for their careers; it’s a tight-knit community. Led by biological sciences professor Kristen Gorman, the group is bound together by a love of science, curiosity about the natural world, and a commitment to kindness. 

For the more than 30 students who have been mentored by Gorman during her six years at Chico State, the lab has become a sanctuary of learning and growth. Her approach to mentorship focuses on helping students grow in all aspects of their academic and personal lives.

“We are very strongly invested in supporting each other. We have regular lab meetings that are more like family dinners,” said Gorman. “I remember life in my 20s, it can be dramatic and that’s a variable that can impact their time in the lab. So, when they need to talk about stuff, whatever it may be, we talk about it.”

As a first-generation college student, Gorman is acutely aware of the intimidating nature of academia and is determined to help her students navigate this complex world with confidence. A big part of that is helping students understand they are capable of great things at Chico State, and they do not need to defer to researchers at larger or more well-known institutions. 

“We’re open about it and talk about the advantages and disadvantages of being at Chico State and how we have more freedom to be creative here,” said Gorman. “And we talk about how ridiculous elitism in education is.  Many of our students are getting through school on their own. They’re working, they’re taking care of elders or infants, or dealing with other challenges. They need to be aware they are not less than anyone. It’s just a matter of how they go into the world and articulate that to others.”

Part of fighting the elitism in academic research is diversifying the STEM fields, something Gorman is passionate about. She firmly believes the world is doomed without diversity, and that it is a means of integrating creative approaches to longstanding problems in science and medicine. That means inviting students like Karen Contreras into the Gorman Lab. As a biochemistry student, Contreras had very few biology classes when she started working with Gorman, but has excelled in her two years as an undergraduate researcher. 

“Doctor Gorman has changed my perspective of science. As a first-generation student of color, it is difficult to envision yourself in these fields, even when you have an interest. She has made me excited to be a scientist and through her allyship,” said Contreras. “I feel that I belong in these spaces. Her style of mentoring is unique because she allows me to be fully creative with my research without feeling like my ideas are invalid. Over the past year, I have come to realize that she is a rare gem in STEM. She has become one of my biggest support systems at Chico State not only in my scientific career but also outside of school.”

Gorman is quick to point out Chico State has some amazing resources like CSC², Adelante, and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program that her students rely on so they don’t have to get jobs that would take them away from the lab. 

Currently in the Gorman lab, students are delving into the intricate world of Medaka fish, seeking to unravel the mysteries of idiopathic scoliosis (IS), a common abnormal spinal curvature condition in humans. Under Gorman’s guidance, the team has embarked on a journey to dissect the genetic and developmental underpinnings of this enigmatic ailment. Through meticulous care of the tiny aquatic subjects, data analysis, trial and error (including a safe environment to fail), and microscopic observations, Gorman’s lab is making significant strides in understanding IS.

“I am lucky to be at an institution that values hands-on learning and training,” said Gorman. “Mentorship is such an enjoyable part of the job. I get to know amazing people; I get to see them become powerful and strong. And it ripples—I love that chain of goodness.”