Students say Liberles is epitome of research mentorship, state association agrees

Jessica Liberles isn’t just making sure her students know the fundamentals of biology. She gives them a seat at the table where they can be heard.

Jessica Liberles

The Florida Undergraduate Research Association recently named the FIU assistant professor of biology the 2021 FURA mentor of the Year. The award recognizes one outstanding faculty mentor from across the state of Florida each year.

Students Jessica Gonzalez and Daniel Morales nominated Liberles. 

“She is the epitome of research mentorship excellence,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez and Morales took Liberles’ Bioinformatics for Biologists course during the 2020 Summer term, followed by her Coronavirus Computational Biology Lab. Since then, they’ve become her writing assistants, lab assistants and undergraduate researchers in the Siltberg-Liberles Lab.

Liberles played an instrumental role in Morales applying to FIU’s Ph.D. in Biology program. The first-generation transfer student who’d been in and out of research since he was a high school intern said principal investigators didn’t always take a particular interest in him. When he joined Liberles’ lab, that all changed.

“It was very new to finally hear from a PI – someone who is respected in their field – ‘Yes, you can do this.’” Morales said. “That was something that definitely changed my world.”

Liberles supports her students in their personal and professional goals. She meets with research mentees individually each week, providing each and every one of them personalized guidance. On occasion, she even helps some find their confidence.

“It’s been really difficult to find my identity within STEM, especially as a woman, as a minority, as a queer person,” Gonzalez said. “To finally be able to be in an environment where I can flourish and be encouraged and supported by a mentor who is receptive to those things is a breath of fresh air.”

Aside from mentoring her students, Liberles is making research and STEM education more accessible to her students by incorporating Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE), a novel form of classroom-based courses that offer students hands-on experience doing original research.

The Florida Undergraduate Research Association – a nonprofit organization – promotes the creation of new undergraduate research opportunities and unites like-minded faculty and administrators across the state to support this high-impact educational practice. The Mentor of the Year Award is the association’s signature annual prize.