Frank Bayliss, a San Francisco State professor, has focused on mentoring students to seek careers in the sciences through his Student Enrichment Opportunities office. President Barack Obama recognized Bayliss’ work in January for having become a national model for uncovering new pools of scientific talent.
Who has had the biggest influence on you in your life?
The high school boys’ vice principal. He wanted me to succeed so badly. He had a daughter in my class, and he had no son, and I had no father, and I was wild and crazy, and he embraced me and said specific characteristics I had were worthwhile. I graduated at 17, had juvenile [problems], gang fights, lived in Watts, a tough neighborhood, was at bottom of my class. He got me into the Air Force (I needed a letter from someone); he got them to look at me beyond that record.
Is there a “Golden Rule” by which you live?
Honesty, integrity. It’s so fundamental.
Where, to whom or to what do you turn to in dark times?
I meditate. I’m not religious, a bit spiritual, have practiced Vipassana meditation. I turn to my wife and friends.
What book or piece of writing has had a large impact on you?
The single most is [Thomas] Gray’s the “Elegy [written] in a Country Churchyard.” It’s very interesting because he’s reflecting back on these tombstones of who all these people might have been.
Tell us about Student Enrichment Opportunities.
There was no office. I got funding; I started an office. When I got up to $4-5 million a year, people listened. Now I have funding from The National Institute of Health, The National Science Foundation; we have had funding from the USDA. Over the course of the program, I have had 200 students entering the Ph.D. program. Between 1984 and 2003, a 20-year period, for all the sciences at SF State, 157 completed Ph.D.s in that period. Of that number, ONE was a minority. They got bachelor’s at State, master’s here or elsewhere and Ph.D.s at State. In 2010, I’ve had 13 [minorities].
Any success stories that stand out in your mind?
Two: Both came here after freshman year and did research with me. They were two women: a Hispanic and an African-American. One went to Harvard and is a postdoc at MIT; the other is also a postdoc at MIT. There’s an African-American male — he showed up in one of my graduate classes. He ended up being at the top of the system. He went to Harvard and finished in three years, and now he’s on the faculty at UC San Diego in neurosciences. — Lisa Geduldig
How do you see your role in the world?
Father, husband, mentor … some of my students called me “sensei” which is one of the highest honors. I see myself really as obligated to give back. I love doing it; it’s not like it’s work. I’ve actually decided not to retire for another five years.
What was it like getting the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics from President Obama?
It was awesome. He has such a presence; he’s so genuine. It was as good as it gets.