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Viewpoint one-on-one with M.D.H., Ph.D: A Pharmaceutical Scientist’s Perspective on STEM Education.

 

Note from Author: These responses reflect my personal experiences and opinions about the subject matter. In no way should they be construed or attributed to my employer.

 

Q:    Please tell us about yourself and your educational background. Please expand on your PhD research.

MDH: I grew up in a small town in West Virginia, am the oldest of three children, and had a wonderful chemistry teacher in my public high school.  She instilled in me a love a science that continues today.  I attended the University of Georgia and graduated with a BS in biochemistry four years after I entered the university.  My original goal had been to become a physician and I received a full scholarship to attend medical school.  However, I quickly realized that this was not the right career path for me and withdrew from the program.     

I worked in the private sector for approximately 7 years before I happened to meet the man who would start me on the path to obtaining my doctorate, Dr. Paul Ferguson.  He encouraged me to seek admission to the graduate program in toxicology at Northeast  

Louisiana University (NLU), now the University of Louisiana-Monroe (ULM).  After three years of searching for a research home within the School of Pharmacy, Dr. Carey Pope  

(now the endowed chair of toxicology at Oklahoma State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine) invited me to join his lab where he studied the neurological effects of organophosphate (OP) pesticides.  My research looked at the age-related cardiac effects of three OP pesticides.  Our lab typically focused on how these compounds affected the brain so examining cardiac effects was a new research area for us.  I graduated with a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences with an emphasis in neurotoxicology.      

Q:  What challenges did you encountered and overcome during your studies?    

MDH: ULM allowed you to pursue a Ph.D. without first obtaining a MS degree as long as you successfully completed the required courses, comprehensive exams, and of course, your original laboratory research.  During my first three years of graduate school, I had three different work-study assignments (as part of my stipend prior to receiving funding from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB)).  Unfortunately, through circumstances outside of my control, I was unable to use any of the research conducted during this time towards my dissertation work.      

Shortly after I completed my course work and comprehensive exams, my major advisor was selected as the endowed chair for toxicology at OSU.  Because SREB was providing a monthly stipend during my graduate education, ULM graciously allowed me to follow Dr. Pope to conduct my doctoral research (rather than forcing me to yet again start a new research project).  However, because of my physical distance from the rest of my advisory committee (which now included a co-chair on the ULM faculty), there were questions about my research that may not have arisen if I had been visible to them.  Ultimately due to the three years of “unusable” research and an additional year of research required by my advisory committee, it took me nearly 7 years to finish the doctoral program.      

With all credit to Dr. Pope, I eventually earned my doctorate despite the many challenges I experienced.  I was able to overcome these challenges first through faith, and with the support of my family, friends, lab colleagues, and Dr. Pope who always told me I would graduate with my Ph.D.  And last but certainly not least, SREB and the Compact were critical elements for my success.  I only had funding to attend three Compact conferences during my extended graduate school tenure.  But those three meetings would provide enough encouragement and determination to carry me through the rough times.  Once my funding to attend the annual Compact meetings ended, Dr. Ansley Abraham and his staff were always available to give support and advice to ensure that I didn’t earn my ABD…all but dissertation…degree.   

3.    What advice do you have for: (a) high school students who want to pursue a career in STEM, and (b) for college/graduate students already pursuing STEM studies?  

MDH:  

Regardless of the age group, my advice would be the same.    

o        Find a mentor early.  

o        Recognize it may not be easy and, it will require focus and dedication to pursue a career in a STEM area.  But it will be worth the end result if you stay the course.    

o        Don’t look at a setback as the end but as the start of your next opportunity to succeed.   

o        Above all, believe in yourself and believe you can succeed.      

For graduate students, I would advise being very thoughtful about selecting your major advisor and your committee members.  Getting a doctorate will probably never be an easy thing to do, nor should it be.  But your choice of a major advisor and the other members of your committee can determine if your path will be as direct and as smooth as possible.      

Q:  In your opinion, what are the top 3 reasons of the low STEM participation of specific groups such the African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, and women in the US?  

MDH:  In my opinion, the top three reasons there is a shortage of minorities and women in STEM are a lack of awareness of the educational and career opportunities in STEM fields, a lack of contemporary role models of minorities and women in these fields, and a lack of early secondary education in STEM areas.    

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?  

MDH: I feel it is imperative to provide opportunities, both through in-school secondary educational curriculum and after-school/extra-curricular programs, that expose minorities and women to STEM areas as early as possible along their educational paths.  Preferably these programs would include hands-on activities, tours of labs and/or company facilities, and the opportunity to attend and/or present at scientific conferences.  It would be helpful to involve instructors from similar backgrounds as the students in these programs students also need to be aware of, and reminded of, the course requirements to obtain a degree in a STEM field.  It is important that these students are continually reminded of the educational and career opportunities that are possible if they stay focused and on the track.   

I would also suggest partnering local college and university professors with students as soon as they express an interest in a STEM field, with a possibility of an internship (paid or voluntary) in that professor’s lab or office.  It is invaluable to establish a mentoring relationship as early as possible along the student’s educational path.  It is critical, especially for first generation college students or students whose parents may not be in a STEM career, to have someone who can give the students sound advice about important decisions that they will face.  As part of the student’s support team, a strong mentor could help with decisions such as the best college to attend or respected program for a particular expertise, the types of study areas (e.g., neurotoxicology vs. aquatic toxicology vs. hepatic toxicology) that might be of interest to the student scholarship opportunities, and writing strong letters of recommendation.  Ideally these early mentors would stay involved with the students throughout their educational endeavors,perhaps continuing these relationships long after the student has successfully obtained her/his degree(s).    

 
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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)