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Kelly Doran faced a choice: Work as a professor at the U.S. News & World Report’s 35th best university in the country or the 183rd.

It was easy. She chose the 183rd.

Doran joined the faculty of San Diego State University three years ago after completing her doctorate and postdoctoral work in biology at school No. 35, the University of California, San Diego. Although she holds an adjunct faculty position at UCSD and could work there if she wanted to, she teaches and does her research at SDSU.

“I could do high-powered research at UCSD, but I really like that interaction with students, to help develop their love of science and their future careers,” she said. “It’s more work, but there’s more of a reward.”

Like many who choose to work and study at SDSU, Doran likes the school’s close-knit environment and its emphasis on teaching. She is also part of a growing group at the school who do not think their careers or the quality of their research are sacrificed because they work or study at a less prestigious school with fewer graduate students and resources like lab space and equipment.

This attitude likely would not have been possible 10 or even five years ago, but SDSU has transformed in recent years to a university that produces significant research. The school pulled in $150 million in grants and contracts last year — a funding level only about 100 universities in the country reach. SDSU has been ranked as the most productive small research university in the country for four years in a row.

SDSU faculty said their school’s increased research funding — up by more than $15 million from two years ago — and growing emphasis on research allows them to produce significant scientific work. And students said they benefit from both these quality research opportunities and hands-on teaching.

But there is a trade-off.

SDSU is growing, but its transformation into a serious research university is not yet complete. The school still has less money and fewer resources to support its science than is available at larger schools (for example, UCSD brought in $1 billion in funding last year).

And it is still struggling to ditch its reputation as just another Cal State school that takes second billing to the powerhouse UCSD. Until that reputation is shed completely, students and professors at SDSU still have to contend with occasional scientific snobbery and questions over whether their careers will be limited by the school they attended.

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SDSU’s charter designates it as a teaching-focused university, so its doctoral students must receive their degrees in conjunction with another university — usually UCSD. But students enrolled in the joint program work with a faculty advisor at SDSU, take most of their classes at SDSU and identify themselves as SDSU students, not joint students.

The focus on teaching at SDSU means the school’s professors dedicate more of their time to teaching than their colleagues at research universities and have close relationships with their students.

Doran said this teaching time can interfere with her research on bacteria that cause diseases in the central nervous system, but said because she likes teaching, it’s worth it.

For SDSU students, this time with their teachers is an obvious educational benefit. But they said the focus on teaching should also boost their own careers.

“This is a place where I have direct hands-on experience mentoring undergrad and grad students,” said Anirban Banerjee, a postdoctoral fellow who works for Doran. “I think mentoring students will definitely help me a lot in terms of finding a job.”

Darin Woolpert, a doctoral student in the Language and Communicative Disorders program, said he hopes teaching will be the focus of his future career.

“Research I like but teaching is the thing I love the most,” he said.

Despite the teaching experience they’ve gained, both Banerjee and Woolpert also worry they’d have a better chance of landing jobs with a more prestigious university on their résumés. Woolpert thinks SDSU is highly regarded in the academic sector of his field, speech pathology, but he said if he wanted a job in the private sector, he might have a harder time.

“At the end of the day, being a student at UCSD looks better than SDSU regardless of the caliber of the actual education you get there,” Woolpert said.

But other SDSU graduate students and postdocs disagree. They said it’s what you do, not the school you do it in, that counts. And more and more, SDSU is providing opportunities to do high-quality research.

Over the past five years, the school hired new faculty members who, in addition to being diligent teachers, are conducting sophisticated research. These professors brought in more grants and contracts and attracted graduate students and postdocs, who in turn helped the professors advance their work. Last year 610 doctoral students attended the school, up from 460 in 2005, and that number will climb higher this year when the school adds five new doctoral programs to its 14 existing research programs.

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Tamsin Sheen and Banerjee, both postdoctoral researchers for Doran, said they chose to work at SDSU partly because of Doran’s reputation in the pathogens field.

“For the type of science I’m interested in, very few researchers have as good of a track record as Kelly,” Sheen said.

Jenna Tabor-Godwin, a doctoral biology student at SDSU, said she chose the school because she wanted to study in a small program, but still wanted to benefit from San Diego’s science-heavy environment. After three years at the school, she has published seven papers including a study on an infection in newborns that causes meningitis and encephalitis that recently made the cover of a respected scientific journal, The Journal of Neuroscience.

But despite accomplishments like Tabor-Godwin’s, she and other SDSU researchers still sometimes face scientific snobbery.

Teachers and students at UCSD said they don’t look down on their state school colleagues. But at the same time, none said they would prefer to do research at SDSU and some said they know little about the science the school produces.

Chris Van Schie, a postdoctoral fellow in UCSD’s biological sciences department, said: “SDSU doesn’t attract me because I don’t know what research is going on there.”

“I am sure SDSU has good research going on, but I am simply not very aware of it,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That can be my neglect, but I think it has to be related to the output as well; publications in high-impact international journals and presentations at large conferences, that is how I learn about research groups.”

Tabor-Godwin said when she tells people she’s earning her doctorate at SDSU, they often say, “Oh, I didn’t even know that school had Ph.D. programs.” And Woolpert, the graduate student in language disorders, said he’s heard stories that during a syphilis outbreak at SDSU, UCSD students joked that they should stay on the other side of the classroom from their state school colleagues.

Although the hierarchy doesn’t usually go as far as imposed segregation, many at SDSU said they get the impression that their research isn’t taken quite as seriously and their school isn’t always respected.

“People up there in La Jolla can definitely have a snobbish attitude in terms of SDSU, saying, ‘Your research is good, but it’s not that high tech,’” Banerjee said.

But if SDSU’s research continues to expand, its name recognition will also grow, making it less likely that students like Tabor-Godwin will have to explain that yes, SDSU has doctoral students, too.

“We can now say we’re smaller yes, but we’re mighty in terms of the research we’re doing,” Doran said. “We are beginning to feel more respected, and people are beginning to look at SDSU as doing serious research.”

Please contact Claire Trageser directly at claire.trageser@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/clairetrageser.

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