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Why STEM? Perspectives of Ph.D. candidates- Part I.


Abdallah Diagne is a 4th year Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry at Northwestern University. 

Jennifer Nicholas is a 1st Year Ph.D. candidate in Structural Engineering at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Adrienne Eastland is a 7th year Ph.D. candidate in Molecular Biosciences/Biophysics from Northwestern University.

Q:  Why did you choose to study and/or have a career in STEM?

Diagne: I was first exposed to experimental science once I immigrated to the United States during the 7th grade, when I was tasked with completing my first Science Fair Project. I quickly learned to pose an interesting query, formulate a hypothesis and devise an experiment to test this hypothesis. These are skills that were foreign to me at the time, as my prior education in my home country of Senegal failed to emphasize such exercises in creativity, and instead stressed learning through a rigid system of memorization. I was able to sharpen these skills as I progressed through high school and college, when the science laboratories became more sophisticated, and my fascination with experimentation became more pronounced. I was able to focus on organic chemistry in particular once I identified a myriad of avenues through which to carry out impactful research, especially with regards to developing new pharmaceutical agents to treat diseases that continue to ravage Africa to this day.

Nicholas: I chose to study STEM because I have for the longest liked mathematics and science. When deciding to choose a career, I chose engineering because it combined both mathematics and science. I believe programs such as MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement) and LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation) helped grow my interest in mathematics, science, engineering, and research in a setting that was both supportive and fun.  I choose to specialize in Structural Engineering as a result of my innate like to build, design, and use creativity to discover something.

Eastland: While working on my PhD in biology at Northwestern University I volunteered with the after school science program, Science Club, at the Pedersen-McCormick Boys & Girls Club in Chicago, where I developed a passion for working with at-risk youth. As an African American scientist who matriculated through the same broken education system as these kids, I remember the mentors that encouraged and motivated me to reach my goals. Now I enjoy the opportunity to work with these young people to build confidence in their abilities, curiosity about the world, and the skills to become active learners. 

Q:   Have you encountered any obstacles on your path to pursuing your studies in a STEM field, and if so, how have you generally handled your challenges?

Diagne: I was eleven years old when my family immigrated to the United States from Senegal, which brought about new adversity, such as learning a new language and culture, fitting in with classmates who did not openly welcome me, and adapting into a new status as a minority. Through hard work and tremendous support from my parents, sibling and dedicated teachers, I was able to overcome these barriers and continue to forge a path of academic success. Dealing with these issues at a young age allowed me to successfully tackle larger problems such as the under-representation of Africans in STEM fields during my post-secondary studies.

Nicholas: Yes, I have encountered obstacles on my path to pursuing my studies in a STEM field. Such obstacles include: being a first-generation college graduate and first-generation Ph.D. student, being a young woman in a man-dominated field- engineering, and coming from a single-parent upbringing. I have handled the challenge of being a first-generation student through support from family, mentors, and peers who foresaw my potential and have helped guide me throughout my education. I have handled the challenge of being a young woman in engineering, a man-dominated field, by focusing more on my genuine interest in engineering rather than on the gender disparity in this field; and by also being a member of organizations such as SWE (Society of Women Engineers) and mentoring programs for women in engineering.  And I have handled the challenge of coming from a single-parent upbringing by being more motivated to complete my education.

Eastland: Being the only African American and female in my lab, I deal with adversity by remembering, “To whom much is given, much is expected”. I generally do a self-assessment, figure out what I can change/influence and what I cannot, then go from there, figuring out alternatives. I look at each day as a new opportunity to be my very best. I set high goals, I rarely say no, and through mentoring, I work with people who share my passion for doing their best. I've always remembered the advice my parents gave me about finishing what I start, and I try to live by it every day.

Q:   What are your objectives as they relate to your STEM studies and your career?

Diagne: I have a strong passion for teaching and research and therefore plan to become a professor of chemistry in the future. Despite the hyper competitiveness of this endeavor, given the plethora of qualified candidates and the relative paucity of open tenure-track positions, this remains a viable goal. I have had several experiences in college successfully teaching and mentoring students in chemistry, especially both high school and post-baccalaureate premedical students. These experiences helped reinforce my beliefs that people at any stage of their lives deserve an opportunity to succeed, and that dedicated professors can inspire them to reach their goals.

Nicholas: My objectives as they relate to my STEM studies and my career include: growing and learning as a researcher, becoming a good mentor, networking and connecting with professionals in engineering, and becoming a professional engineer. 

Eastland: I've been fortunate in my own schooling; I had wonderful teachers. I want to be that same kind of teacher who not only encourages kids to learn but also sets an example that inspires others to want to teach. I also want to address and remove stereotypical thinking, such as STEM is geeky or not for girls. I would like to see every STEM experience relate to the actual lives of the students, connecting their culture, their ages, and their interests to foster equality in the classroom. In the long run, that's our best chance of turning around the quality of education in this country.

Q:   How can we increase the number of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, and women in STEM?

Diagne: In a lot of cases, it takes extreme self-motivation for a member of historically disenfranchised groups such as those mentioned above to pursue the level of higher education required for careers in STEM. The lack of exceptional financial and educational resources, and the possible lack of precedence of such careers within their families continue to be formidable barriers to their success. As a result, there is currently a positive trend in implementing programs and fellowships at the college level to provide resources and funds for members of these groups to pursue careers in science, but more work can be done to expand their footprint and increase awareness. I believe the ultimate solution is to continue to inspire young minds, which can be done at any level. Dedicated and passionate science teachers in elementary schools can fuel their students’ desire to be scientists for the two decades it takes to earn their Ph.D.’s. As more and more figures from historically under-represented groups in STEM rise to prominence and earn high-level positions in government—i.e. Neil Degrasse Tyson, the award-winning cosmologist and Charles Bolden, the current administrator of NASA—more students who look like them can be inspired to pursue their careers. Even Hollywood has reflected this trend, with recent popular movies such as The Martian and Interstellar featuring scientists of color and women in the top positions within NASA.

Nicholas: We can increase the number of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, and women in STEM through: support and mentoring programs that represent all of these groups and that show careers in STEM are possible; incentives that motivate excellence in STEM; faculty and teachers that represent these groups at every stage; faculty and teachers who are encouraging and understand that students come from diverse backgrounds; and professionals in STEM that represent these groups.

Eastland: The only way to address the disproportion of women, persons with disabilities, and racial/ethnic groups in STEM is to create and implement programs with a curriculum tailored for diverse learners. This will allow underrepresented students to overcome issues linked to educational underachievement, including socioeconomic status, cultural trends, and lack of awareness of STEM opportunities and career fields.


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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)