An open letter to girls interested in STEM

Today I had the privilege of spending my morning talking to high school girls interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

Below is what I said to them, and what I’d say to girls everywhere who are interested in STEM.

I hope they enjoyed meeting and hearing from me even half as much as I enjoyed meeting and hearing from them.

Hi Ladies- I’m really happy to be here to talk with you today. You’re lucky to have this event.  I would have loved to attend this kind of thing when I was in high school.  Growing up, I didn’t know any scientists- it wasn’t until college that I met any.

So, what kind of scientist am I?  I’m a bioengineer.  That means I apply principles normally associated with engineering to biology.  So when you think about engineering, building a bridge for instance, you think about how long is it?  How many cars does it have to carry?  Is it a one lane bridge over a brook in a rural area or the new Tappan Zee that has to carry thousands of cars a day, hundreds at one time?  Is there lots of wind?  Does the bridge have to flex and sway?  Are the pilings in a river, exposed to flowing water or on the banks in the dirt?

Well, the same kinds of questions apply to biology.  What kind of cell are you studying?  A bone cell that’s used to a hard surface or a mammary cell that’s used to a soft surface or a blood cell that’s meant to float around with no surface at all?  Is the cell exposed to flow like a lung cell exposed to air flow or an endothelial cell (those that make up your blood vessels) that’s exposed to blood flow?  Does the cell have to move and flex like a muscle or the skin on your knee or does it have to remain still and cushioned like a brain cell?  Is it meant to carry a heavy weight, like the cells in your foot, or no weight at all, like the cells in your eye?

If you want to study breast cancer, are mammary cells used to a soft surface or a hard one?  Would it make sense to put them on a petri dish that’s hard like bone?  No.  So bioengineers look at all the kinds of signals a cell gets normally in the body, and tries to recreate those in a lab.  This lets us learn about how the cells behave normally or misbehave in the case of a disease.  There’s also a large area of research into recreating tissues- bones, organs, skin, etc. to treat broken bones, organ failure, burns, etc.

So there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on.  In my career, as a graduate student, I studied breast cancer, and used a model system that allowed cells to form mini-mammary glands in the lab to understand how different scaffolds changed the behavior of the cells to make them more like tumor cells.  As a post-doc I studied liver, and designed two different systems that let hepatocytes (those are what we call liver cells) to form mini-livers in the lab to try and keep the liver cells functional outside the body.  Now, as a scientist at my company, I’m growing mini-guts in the lab to study colon cancer.

So how did I get here?  Well, I went to Carmel High School up in Putnam County and won the college admissions lottery by getting into Yale. I wasn’t the valedictorian of my high school class or anything, but I worked hard, did well enough, did lots of volunteer work, and something about my application clicked with admissions and I got it.

Once I got there, it was really hard.  I’m not going to lie.  I remember sitting in an orientation and chatting with another freshman.  She told me how she won some prestigious science award for discovering a new treatment for burn patients.  I thought to myself, “Oh Lord.  I am out of my league!”  There were lots of times I really doubted my abilities.  I thought for sure I didn’t belong there.  I remember calling home to my mom and telling her I couldn’t cut it.  Her response was, “Courtney, that school has been accepting students for 300 years.  I don’t think they made a mistake letting you in.”

Lo and behold, she was right and they were right.  I just kept chugging along. I wasn’t a superstar or a super genius, but I did well enough.

One thing that really helped me was finding a support system.  My freshman Chem Lab lecturer, Dr. Iona Black, the only black woman in Yale’s Chem department, took me under her wing and encouraged me to apply to a  fellowship program she had started.  It was called STARS:  Science, Technology, and Research Scholars.  She started the program to help keep women and minorities in the sciences.  They organized study sessions, had upper classmen serve as mentors and tutors, had study breaks at her house, arranged for our work study money to pay us to do lab research, helped us get into research labs, taught us how to give scientific presentations, and generally helped to encourage and support us.  STARS was crucial to my success in college and beyond- as much of what I learned has served me well since.  So, when you get to college, seek out a community, a support system and work with each other!

After graduating from Yale with a BS in Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics, I went on to Princeton for grad school and was again blessed and lucky to find a supportive advisor, another woman who was an excellent mentor and role model for me.  After getting my PhD in Molecular Biology, I moved to MIT and the lab of yet another woman in the Department of Biological Engineering.  You may have seen her work.  Has anyone ever seen the picture of a mouse with an ear on its back?  It was in an episode of South Park once.  Well, that was her research- trying to engineer cells to make cartilage in the shape of an ear, for a little boy who had been born without an outer ear.  Amazing, right?

Now that I’m out of school and have a real job, I’m always happy to reach out to girls who are like I was- interested in science, so they can see someone doing that job and realize the possibilities that exist- like all the women on this panel.

So what is a typical day like for me?  Well, they vary, but usually include doing experiments in the lab, analyzing data, meeting with my Research Associate to go over data or experimental plans, designing experiments, one on one or group meetings to share data and give/get feedback, working on presentations for those meetings, or administrative stuff like timecards and safety training.  I enjoy it a lot- I find discovering something new exciting.  Figuring out how something works, getting a new piece of data, solving a problem- there’s a thrill associated with it.

So what advice can I give you- future women in STEM?  My first piece of advice would be, “Be careful who you take advice from.”  Not everyone is rooting for you.  Not everyone, including yourself, knows what you are capable of.

I’m going to tell you a story from my own childhood to prove this point. I know that after today, you probably won’t remember my name or any details about me, but I want you to remember Mr. Cucaruto.

When I was in 5th grade, I was in a Reading class for gifted and talented students.  However, I, apparently, was only gifted and talented in reading- not science or math or social studies, or any other subject.  So, on days when the kids who were gifted and talented in everything got to do ‘enrichment activities’ like cool field trips or special assemblies, I got to sit by myself in the main office during my reading period.

I remember sitting there and being really disappointed and jealous that I didn’t get to do all those things, knowing I’d hear all the kids talking about it the next day in Reading class.  So, I asked my mom why I wasn’t able to participate.  She said she didn’t know, but that I should ask my guidance counselor.  So, I arranged to talk to Mr. Cucaruto, my guidance counselor.  I asked why I wasn’t in the gifted and talented program except for reading and he gave me a bunch of bull-oney about “working my butt off” to get into that program.  I went home and told my mom she had to talk to him because he’d pretty much blown me off.

So, she went and spoke to him.  She reported back the simple fact that my standardized test scores weren’t high enough to get me in, except for the reading.  That was a real answer and I was satisfied.  I kept going in school, doing my best, for the most part, (except for one quarter of French where I did really bad).

Then in 7th grade we took more tests to see if we would qualify to take high school Regent’s math and science as eighth graders.  I placed into the high school math, but not the science.  Then, a week into 8th grade, Tiffany Radovich (who had placed into the science) decided she didn’t want to take it.  Her spot was offered to me and I took it.

I always struggled with the math- but never really liked it.  I struggled with the science too, but I loved it, especially the biology.  So, a few summer programs later (UCONN Mentor Connection, which is still in existence if you are interested really clinched it for me), I wanted to be a scientist.  I applied to college, and as I said, I won the lotto and got into Yale.

The very day that I got my acceptance letter from Yale, and my parents realized the financial aid package would make it possible for them to pay the tuition, my mom told me a secret she had kept since I was 10 years old in the 5th grade.

She said, “Courtney, do you remember when you were in 5th grade and Mr. Cucaruto blew you off?  Remember how I told you that he said your scores weren’t high enough?  Well, that’s not all he said.  He told me, ‘Mrs. Williams, you’re just going to have to accept that your daughter is a mediocre student at best.’  I never told you.  I didn’t want you to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I’m so glad he was wrong.”

And I’m so glad my mom kept that a secret from me.  Can you imagine a guidance counselor saying that?  That a parent shouldn’t expect much from her kid?!  What would that have changed about my perception of my own abilities if this guidance counselor, and educator, thought I was ‘mediocre at best’?!

So what I didn’t score as gifted and talented on a standardized test- that didn’t make me mediocre.  My dad barely finished middle school.  To this day he struggles to read and write.  I remember him asking me for help when I was still in elementary school.  It stinks he didn’t get the help he needed in school, but he’s brilliant- he can (and does) fix everything, from a motor to microscope stage to an earring, he can figure it out.  His ability to take a test tells you only about his ability to take a test, not what he is capable of.

There is an Albert Einstein quote that I love, he said, “Everyone is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”  Thanks to my mom, I didn’t spend my grade school career thinking I was mediocre at best.

My path to being a scientist wasn’t easy.  It was challenging, and there were plenty of times I felt like a fish climbing a tree and failed or came really close to failing.  There were (and still are) days I doubt my abilities and am certain that I’m not as smart or capable as people think I am.  What made the difference was staying the course- failing and trying again, and again, and again.  And not listening to the Mr. Cucaruto’s I encountered, even the Mr. Cucaruto in my head that tells me I’m ‘mediocre at best.’

If you want to be in STEM, you have to learn to fail.  Science it all about failure and being wrong.  Who has heard of the Scientific Method?  You form a hypothesis, then design an experiment to test it, right?  Well, sometimes the experiment fails and you have to do it over and over again to get it to work.  Then, once it does work, it might prove your hypothesis wrong.  You didn’t get it right.  You need a new hypothesis and you have to do more experiments.  It’s a cycle of failure and being wrong over and over again.  The trick isn’t being right, the trick is being okay with being wrong.

So, how many of the women in this room have been wrong?  How many have failed?  How many of us have failed SPECTACULARLY at something and felt like a big failure?  How many of us tried again despite that?  Looking back, are you glad you tried again?

If you can do that, you can fail and put aside that feeling of failure, and try again, you’re well on your way to being a scientist already.

Don’t listen to the Mr. Cucarutos you encounter, OK?  Fake it till you make it.  What do you do when you’re in a bad neighborhood and have no idea where you’re going?  Do you stop in the middle of the street looking confused and worried?  No!  You walk with purpose and totally pretend you know exactly what you’re doing.

Do that in other areas of your life.  Ignore the Mr. Cucaruto in your head who says you’re mediocre, and fake it.  Fail and try again, and again, and again.  Be a big, huge, embarrassing failure.  Then move on.

I’ve failed over and over again, with some successes sprinkled in here and there, and look where it got me?  I’m here getting to spend the day away from the lab to meet with all of you and have a free lunch!

So, even if you forget my name tomorrow, promise me you’ll remember to ignore Mr. Cucaruto, OK?  Promise?

Thanks a lot for listening.  I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say during lunch!

1 Comment

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One response to “An open letter to girls interested in STEM

  1. Pingback: Not a humblebrag- why people from elite schools hide it | mommacommaphd

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