How to turn a girl into a scientist.

While I’ve always been interested in science- specifically biology- there a few points in my life that were definitive in my journey from a girl to a scientist.

I was reminded of those points when Michelle Toomey from Cone contacted me about FIRST.  FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.  They engage kids of all ages in science and technology using things from Legos to robotics.  Their programs are successful in encouraging students to pursue their education, to pursue science.

They’ve even gotten from the Black Eyed Peas in on the deal!  (The video is long, but comes on about the 10min mark).

I’m not a huge BEP fan, preferring this to this, and while I have serious doubts that will meet his goal to, “change America by making science the coolest thing on the planet!” I do think FIRST is an important step in the right direction.

If I am an example, programs like FIRST are crucial.  They expose kids to science, let them see what it’s all about, get them excited about meeting challenges, introduce them to scientists, give them first-hand knowledge that making science a profession is an option.

I know, for me, I didn’t know a single scientist growing up.  Plenty of nurses, teachers, police officers, welders, builders, contractors, office workers, middle managers, day care providers, etc.  Not one single scientist.

So, in the absence of knowing a scientist, how did I set upon science as a career choice?  Programs like FIRST.

The summer after my Junior year of high school (and AP Bio), I participated in the UCONN Mentor Connection.  I spent three weeks of my summer in the lab of a chemistry professor there running agarose gels, learning about Fullerene/Buckyballs, and getting really excited about the prospect of working in a lab.

The combination of AP Bio and my time at UCONN clinched for me that I wanted to pursue a science degree in college.  UCONN Mentor Connection was a definitive experience that set my course for a science career.

Staying that course, however, would require another innovative program.

I got to college, I chose my major- an intimidating and arduous program combining the best/worst (?) of biology, chemistry, and physics had to offer:  Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.  I was frightened of my major and most definitely unsure of myself and my abilities.

I remember calling home to my mother feeling overwhelmed and unprepared after a chemistry placement exam.  She scolded me, “Listen, to me- that school has been accepting students for 300 years!  You are not their mistake!  Stop it.  You’ll do fine.”

My mom was right.  I did do fine, in large part thanks to STARS– the program that allowed me to stay the course.

STARS stands for Science, Technology, and Research Scholars- a program designed to support women, minority, economically underprivileged, and other historically underrepresented students in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. The STARS program provides undergraduates an opportunity to combine course-based study, research, mentorship, networking, and career planning in the fields of science and technology. The program seeks to improve student performance and persistence rates in the fields of Biology, Chemistry, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, and related majors, such as Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Science.

My freshman year I had the luck of being in Dr. Black’s chemistry lab course.  She started STARS.  She encouraged me to participate and I did.  I started in my sophomore year as a STARS I Scholar- having fellow-scholars in my classes, attending tutoring and study sessions with upperclass-scholars, enjoying Popeye’s study breaks and Dr. Black’s house, and generally benefitting from a supportive scientific community.  Having allies in my pursuit of science was crucial to my persistence and success.

I went on to the STARS Summer Research Program.  I had tried and failed to find a lab that would take an inexperience Sophomore on as a student… until STARS.  The program had a good reputation and approaching labs a STARS scholar allowed me my choice of labs.  That summer I joined a lab at the Medical School and continued doing my undergraduate research there until graduation- as a STARS II Scholar.  All along the way there were research talks to give, classes on keeping a lab notebook, opportunities to meet scientists, practice writing/speaking/presenting/explaining my science, as well as financial support (STARS was able to funnel the work study portion of my financial aid package to ‘pay’ me for the research I did during the year- without which, I would have had to give up the lab work in favor of a paying work study job).

My extensive undergraduate research, academic success, and science literacy made getting into graduate schools a non-issue.  I was able to choose from among several top-teir research universities.

The benefits of STARS didn’t end when I was accepted to grad school.  Having presented my undergraduate research many times- in lab meetings and in larger forums organized by STARS, giving graduate student colloquium was nothing new.  While classmates spent the first few years getting comfortable talking about their research and presentation skills, I was able to fine tune my skills right away.

I can’t say without UCONN Mentor Connection and STARS I wouldn’t be where I am today, I do think it would have been a much harder route, and I may very well have given up on a science career.  When I look at my fellow STARS scholars, with whom I am still close, there are several MDs, a physician’s assistant, a research scientist, a science education advocate, a genomics technician, the list continues.

The program worked.  We stayed in science.  Programs like FIRST work.

Now that I am where I am, I do what I can to encourage science literacy and get involved in science outreach.  I had a great time judging last year’s Westchester Science and Engineering Fair.  I reached out to my old high school to offer current students the opportunity to do summer internships at my company.  I’m writing this blog post, so that a kid or a parent might see it and another girl (or boy) could be set on the same course.

At a time when school funding is dwindling and resources are scare, programs like FIRST and Science for Citizens are all the more crucial- helping teachers make the most of their limited resources.

Do what I did- spread the word about science, tell your local school about FIRST.


Filed under #scimom, Scientist

4 responses to “How to turn a girl into a scientist.

  1. I did not end up being a scientist – a point that sometimes makes me sad, sometimes happy – but I work around them and with them and have nothing but appreciation for the fact that there are so few women in science (and engineering). Institutional support seems to be a big key, but having real working scientists and academics provide individual support and encouragement is so so so important.

    I wish I had understood and taken advantage or more undergraduate research opportunities. I am constantly amazed at how many I deal with t UT and wish that I had sought these out or had some encourage me to do so when I was an undergrad.

    • I hear you. I wonder if I would have been in a different branch of science with different exposure. Biology was kind of the safe science (but also the one I was most drawn to)- and I was definitely intimidated by the physics and math courses I had to take as an undergrad.

      I look at those videos of the kids competing in FIRST and I wonder, “What kind of scientist would I have been if I wasn’t so intimidated by math?”

      My post-doc was in a bioengineering department and I realized that there is so much math I don’t know, and so much more I could do/study/understand if I was more math-literate. Not to mention the statistics- which we’ve discussed before.

  2. this post is SO COOL. once again you’ve made that personally relevant experience clear. I think that we can make science more accessible and influential not simply by showcasing these great programs, but by sharing stories like yours. They are so important. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: Jr FIRST LEGO League | mommacommaphd

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