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Recruiting a New Generation in S.T.E.M.

“So let me get this straight. You spent 11 extra years in school just so you could put kids in an MRI machine? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.”

—Judgmental 5th grader

I was giving my Career Day presentation to a classroom full of 5th-8th grade students, sharing what got me interested in science, why I chose to pursue a doctorate degree, and a little about my current job using MRI technology to study brain function in children with and without ADHD. And here was this little crumb-snatcher condensing my life choices into one measly, boring bullet point. The shade! I didn’t know how to rebut the accusation that my PhD in neuroscience was, in this kid’s mind, rubbish. I knew I would not be able to convince every kid that scientists are cool and the time in school is worth the trouble, but he didn’t have to try me in front of everybody!

That brief moment of embarrassment aside, the significance of being a young(ish) Black female neuroscientist in a room full of curious youth from a largely Black and brown community in Portland, the whitest big city in the U.S., was not lost on me. Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians hold less than 7% of the 38,959 PhDs awarded in science and engineering. Just by my being in the room, likely the first Black scientist they’ve met, and sharing my story, I wanted to shift students’ perspectives about what a scientist looks like and encourage them to see themselves in that role. So even at the risk of being verbally dragged by a kid, I enjoy talking to youth about my career path and showing them a side of science they may not have seen.

Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians hold less than 7% of the 38,959 PhDs awarded in science and engineering. Just by my being in the room, likely the first Black scientist they’ve met, and sharing my story, I wanted to shift students’ perspectives about what a scientist looks like and encourage them to see themselves in that role.

Part of my day job as a scientist is to develop and support programs that expose students of color to S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and math) education the diverse array of scientific and careers. Last summer, I hosted a 3-day summer program for incoming high school freshman in the Summer Academy to Inspire Learning (SAIL) to learn about biomedical careers. SAIL, sponsored through Portland State University, aims to increase the number of low-income students enrolling and succeeding in college. This would be my third year hosting a group of students in this program at the Oregon Health and Science University. I created an agenda of activities to showcase how scientists at my university develop the knowledge and technology to address human disease and advance healthcare. I expected that many of the students wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to scientific exploration—perhaps due to lack of exposure or interest—so I set out to connect each of their individual interests to a variety of career opportunities in the biomedical sciences. I wanted the students to experience how accessible and applicable science could be.

On Day 1 of the program, I spent the first part of the morning getting to know each of the 18 students and what excited them. A few of my colleagues, from different backgrounds, shared the activities and academic subjects they were into as high school students and how that may or may not have translated into their current careers. Many of the students expressed that they were unsure of the professions they wanted to pursue and seemed relieved to know that even adults are still figuring their careers out and adjusting the ways in which they bridge their skills with their curiosities. We spent the last half of the day taking tours of the campus and allowing the students to see what it’s like to get a brain scan in our mock MRI setup (which, as you now know, took me 11 years to facilitate). Our first day together ended whimsically by taking Portland’s Aerial Tram from the hilltop university, sailing through the sky across the highway, to the river waterfront below. With the teens’ delighted squeals and declarations of “Yo, we gonna die!” ringing in my head, I couldn’t help but think, “Today was a good day!”

On Day 2, we traveled to the Oregon National Primate Research Center, one of eight federally funded National Primate Research Centers in the U.S., and home to approximately 4,800 nonhuman primates. We spoke with a few of the center’s scientists involved in world-class research programs addressing high-priority medical needs, such as obesity and reproductive health. We even got a crash course in somatic cell nuclear transfer, a technique used for creating embryonic stem cells without fertilization. The favorite part of the visit for all of us was taking a tour of the outdoor facilities that house some of the most crucial elements of biomedical discovery—Rhesus and Japanese macaques. As you can imagine, monkey business was in full swing and we got an entertaining snapshot of the complex social structure of these furry creatures. After watching a baby monkey-napping and some dominant male clap-backs, a few of the students decided that watching monkeys socialize was better than reality TV. I took that as confirmation of another successful day of science-ing. (And the foundation of a VH1 show pitch to Mona.)

We wrapped up the day with an informal Q&A, and I was pleased to hear from students, not initially interested in science, ask about my university’s internship opportunities. Got ‘em!

On the last day, the students delved deeper into my favorite topic: neuroscience. In one session, they learned about the effects of alcohol on brain function and behavior, and how researchers study these using rodents. In a following session, the students learned how neurons work and why adolescence is an important time for learning. To culminate our time together, we had the students break into small groups and design a product or service that solved a real world problem using neuroscience. Each group presented their ideas and I was blown away at the enthusiasm and creativity they each put into their innovations. We wrapped up the day with an informal Q&A, and I was pleased to hear from students, not initially interested in science, ask about my university’s internship opportunities. Got ‘em!

At the end of that third day, I went home exhausted but grateful that these students allowed me to share my passions with them—and no one scoffed at my educational and career choices! I believe exposure to new experiences will broaden the way students consider the possibilities of their futures. There’s a common belief that what children see is what they will be. If they don’t see what they can be, how will they know to dream it? If they dream it but there is no one to support them, how will they reach it? I have made it a career priority to provide opportunities to engage youth of color in S.T.E.M. and expand their network of role models who look like them and come from similar backgrounds. With minorities making up only 16% of the science and engineering workforce, there is a clear need for those of us in that 16% to invest in the diversity of the S.T.E.M. pipeline by being visible, accessible, and willing to urge youth to consider and go through that pipeline. I believe programs like the one I’ve designed are important for encouraging curious youth to further explore their interests, to try something new, or to simply know that there are a variety of careers to consider. I don’t expect that I inspired all 18 young minds from this past summer to be future scientists. But I hope all of them believe there is a place for them in any professional field. And maybe, just maybe, a few of them will follow me in growing and changing the face of science.

By Marguerite Matthews, Ph.D

Marguerite Matthews accidentally received a PhD in neuroscience and now spends most of her work day trying to figure out how the brain functions. When she’s not mapping developing brain networks, she’s directing outreach initiatives to connect youth of color to S.T.E.M. opportunities and addressing mental health disparities in underserved communities. In her spare time, she enjoys watching ratchet TV (for research purposes), curating her Goodreads book list, learning the hottest dance trends, and blogging about all of the above. You can trust her, she’s a doctor.