Svitlana Zbarska

Zbarska received the 2023 Award for Impact on Student Success.


    • 90

      Students presenting at the 2023 National Conference on Undergraduate Research

    • 500+

      Students advised in 2022-23

    • 40%

      Increase in research opportunities (2016-22)

    Empowering students to grow as researchers starts with promoting the myriad research opportunities across campus. When she's not facilitating workshops on the importance of undergraduate research or connecting students with faculty for the first-year Honors research mentor program, campuswide undergraduate research program coordinator Svitlana Zbarska meets individually with hundreds of students each year to discuss their interests and career goals.

    Zbarska asks students about their background, experiences and how they see themselves because she believes understanding who a student is as a person is crucial to helping them identify and achieve their goals.

    "Students, especially international students, come to me with many questions, from what conferences to present at, to concerns about finding a research position that offers compensation because they can't afford to not have a job," she said. "I have been in those shoes, and I tell them that life isn't always fair, but we can still find our paths. Success looks different for every student."

    For some of those students, success means becoming an undergraduate research ambassador and working alongside Zbarska to host events and offer guidance to students new to undergraduate research. When Zbarska talks about the 20+ ambassadors she works with each year, it's clear they have had as much impact on her as she has on them. She even started an alumni board to stay in touch and connect former and current ambassadors.

    "I can only say the highest words of praise about these students," she said of the ambassadors, several of whom have received the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship. "They understand the impact undergraduate research has had on their college experience and that this is a professional development and networking opportunity."

    The feeling is mutual for the ambassadors as well as the Honors Student Board, who both provided recommendation letters for Zbarska's nomination. To have received support from the very students she strives to empower is the most meaningful part of being named one of the University Award recipients for Zbarska, who recently learned her nickname among the students.

    "It's Research Mama," she said with a laugh. "I love my job. I see its impact on many students and that has been the most rewarding part for me."

    I love my job because I see its impact on many students and that has been the most rewarding part for me.

    Svitlana Zbarska

    Advocating for mentorship

    Fostering relationships with students is close to her heart and key to the program's success, but it's partnerships with faculty that make the campuswide undergraduate research possible. At faculty orientation and department meetings, Zbarska shares the gospel of undergraduate research and encourages faculty to sign up as mentors.

    Her efforts have paid off. While the undergraduate research mentoring program existed for more than two decades, faculty involvement nearly doubled in her first year as coordinator and has held steady since with a drop only during 2020-21 due to the pandemic. Stories of successful mentee-faculty matchups and students who later become graduate assistants help her paint a picture for faculty considering the significant investment of being a mentor.

    Zbarska said support for undergraduate research has increased across campus, though there's still a need for streamlined processes and additional funding to get more students and faculty involved.

    "Faculty create these opportunities. I would love to see additional support for them to mentor even more students," she said. "I see the potential of Iowa State being in the top five or even the top school for undergraduate research. I hope my work with students and faculty is laying the foundation for that to happen."

    Research veteran

    A native of Kyiv, Ukraine, Zbarska came to the United States in 2001 and started her career at Iowa State as a neuroscience Ph.D. student. She worked with undergraduate students in the labs of biomedical sciences professor Vlastislav Bracha and Morrill Professor and director of biology and genetics undergraduate programs Donald Sakaguchi. A natural research mentor who often wrote recommendation letters and offered graduate school guidance, she was approached about the undergraduate research program coordinator role by a student who thought she would be a good fit.

    "I wasn't sure at first because I had been 100% a researcher, but I really cared about my undergraduates in the lab and I cared about their future careers," Zbarska said. She transitioned to her current role in 2016.

    "Maybe someday I will go back to research, but this role has given me a platform to make a faster and broader impact on people. I feel rewarded on a daily basis when I hear success stories from students and alumni."

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