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


Terrell Morton is a 3rd Ph.D. candidate in Education (Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies) at Universities of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill. 

Mariel D. Friberg is 4th year Ph.D.  candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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

Morton: As a child, I always knew that I wanted to help and serve my people. I received joy out of being able to help make other people's lives better. It was at some point during my childhood where I had decided that I wanted to be a doctor so that I could help "heal" people. Building on this desire to help, I grew interested in and attracted to Chemistry. I remember having a home Chemistry kit where I would do kitchen science experiments and taking an interest in creating "potions" and observing changes and reactions when I mixed different things. Taking Chemistry and Biology in the same semester my sophomore year in high school, lead me to study Chemistry in college. I found Chemistry to be more exciting and challenging than Biology at the time since in Chemistry we were running experiments and in Biology we were memorizing facts.

As my exposure to Chemistry grew, so did my knowledge of the field and potential careers that I could pursue. Still having that desire to be a doctor, I continued to pursue a medical career until I realized that I had adequately prepared for medical school post-graduation. Rather than taking time off from school, I decided to obtain a research career in biomedical sciences, where I could still have the opportunity to help, become a doctor, and study something that I was interested in, the brain. While pursuing a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, I encountered several life-altering experiences that caused me to deviate from the plan. Dealing with family health crises and recognizing that my real passion was helping, healing, and mentoring, I decided to switch trajectories from obtaining a STEM career, to helping others achieve and maintain in STEM.

Having this understanding led me to believe that I would have a greater impact on both the STEM field and the lives of others if I served as a STEM educator, mentor, and coach, rather than a STEM researcher. As it stands, I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Education, concentration Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies, where my research interest involves investigating and developing optimal learning environments for African American students, specifically focusing on the impact and influence of undergraduate research experience on STEM retention.

Friberg: Participating in STEM outreach programs from a very early age gave me the opportunity to find the disciplines I enjoyed. Through early experiences I learned that I enjoy solving applied science and engineering problems. In high school I decided I wanted to be an engineer, but I was not always sure about what kind. As an undergraduate, I looked for internships in my field of study, so that I could begin to understand the different work environments and projects available in my field. After exploring my options within engineering and honing in on my career goals, I pursued an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and later a graduate degree in environmental engineering.

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?

Morton:  Yes, I have encountered many obstacles along my path towards pursuing both my BS in Chemistry, my MS in Neuroscience and now my Ph.D. in Education. A majority of my difficulties in STEM occurred during my graduate studies. I had the opportunity to attend North Carolina A&T State University (an HBCU) for undergrad where I was I studied and developed in an encouraging environment. My advisor, other professors, and peers served as primary sources of motivation and encouragement that helped me persevere through the program. Most of the difficulties that I faced during that time dealt with Chemistry as a discipline, and my ability to understand and relate it to my goals and life. Even though I received lots of support, Chemistry as a field of study can "scare" people away, and I witnessed many bright individuals leave STEM because of their experience with the discipline.

During my graduate studies, my obstacles in STEM dealt more so with feelings of inclusion and association. Despite the fact that I knew what I was studying, why I was studying it, and the potential impact that my work could have when weighing out the benefits and cost of pursuing a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, I found that the cost outweighed the reward. As one of the few Black males studying Neuroscience at my graduate institution, I found myself to feel alone at times and in need of more people "like me" to associate with. I searched for and developed a family-like support system within the graduate school so that I could have that motivation and encouragement to continue. As I continued to learn more about the discipline and realize what it would take to be successful in the field, I decided that my level of commitment to the field was not as strong as my level of commitment to other things such as education, mentoring, and uplift. It was also during this time of personal struggle where I was dealing with family issues back at home that I could not readily attend to due to my physical separation from them. Thinking about my immediate future, as well as where I saw myself 30 years down the line, I decided that while my interest and desire to study and research the brain was strong, my desire to bring change for the better to the lives of young African American students was stronger.

Now, as a Ph. D student studying STEM education and reflecting on my experience, I look for ways to help address some of the issues that I experienced while directly engaged in STEM to help others endure and obtain their dreams of working in STEM. While I experienced opposition and challenges in the STEM field that could have served as deterrents, I had positive influences that kept me focused and determined to complete my journey. Again learning to navigate being one of few Black males in a terminal degree program, and having a more critical lens when it comes to institutional, structural, and societal inequities, I find myself being a "lone wolf" at times. I have been fortunate enough to develop a strong network and have mentors outside the field to keep me motivated: their words of wisdom, support, and guidance, along with my passion and desire to bring about change for the better serves as my sources of motivation to continue in my endeavors.

Friberg: From what I have seen and experienced, it is natural to face obstacles during the pursuit of any degree in STEM. As a Hispanic and a female, I have learned it is a strength to be a minority in many ways and have incorporated these lessons –many relating to adaptability-- into my strategy in overcoming obstacles. Depending on the challenge I face, my strategy to succeed employs a unique combination of my support system (i.e. family, peers, mentors, meta-mentors, advisors, sponsors, etc.), character strengths (e.g. perseverance, adaptability), and problem solving skills.

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

Morton:  My objectives are to enhance the literature on STEM education for Black students in postsecondary learning, develop optimal environments that help Black students persist through the pervasive challenges by addressing and changing structural context that creates the challenges for the students. My goal is to help increase the number of Black students studying STEM, as well as the number of Black students maintaining in STEM. I believe that there are lots of initiatives that have been put forth to increase STEM engagement and participation, but there has not been a concerted effort put forth to help them maintain and succeed once they get into the STEM fields.

Friberg: My doctoral research objective is to provide results that will be directly applicable to air quality assessment. I aspire to become a scientific researcher making meaningful contributions to the fields of atmospheric science, environmental engineering, and health.  These aspirations make use of my passion for learning.

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?

Morton:  I believe that we can increase the number of African-American, Latino, Native American, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and women in STEM by introducing to and supporting them in STEM at early ages (elementary school age) and continuing throughout high school and beyond. This introduction and support will help them realize what STEM is, how STEM operates, and how STEM relates to and connects with their everyday lives and experiences. By introducing them to STEM earlier and supporting them in STEM throughout their educational process, students can develop strong "STEM identities" where they can see STEM as extensions of themselves, rather than as something that they cannot obtain. Most research suggests that is during these earlier years where individuals are turned away from STEM and develop oppositional attitudes, beliefs, and identities when it comes to STEM. Addressing this issue at the forefront of education will increase STEM engagement.

To maintain STEM interest and keep students in STEM, as STEM professionals and educators, we must change the way in which we teach and present STEM to the students. STEM has to be something that students can relate and associate with. As well, students have to be able to feel confident and efficacious in STEM for them to have a lasting desire to pursue and remain in it. A majority of these feelings come from their learning environments, where their teachers have an overwhelming significant influence on their experience. Students also need role models and mentors in STEM to aspire after and serve as a source of encouragement. I am sure that if every STEM professional from a marginalized group were to reflect on their experience in STEM during their schooling process, there was someone that served as a significant motivator, encourager, cheerleader, and mentor that helped you through the process. We must now be those mentors, cheerleaders, and encouragers, and show these students that if we can make it, so can they.

Lastly, I believe that if we want to increase the number of numerically underrepresented individuals in STEM, then as STEM professionals and educators we need to have a discussion about nature and culture of STEM. When I talk about the culture of STEM, I am particularly talking about the individualistic, isolating, and competitiveness-based approach that STEM presents. While all individuals are not the same, and all people from these specified groups are not homogenous in terms of their experiences, needs, beliefs, practices, etc, it is worth mentioning that a majority of these groups identified traditionally have a more collectivist-style culture that requires collaboration and support among the group rather than competition and individuality. More conversations about restructuring STEM education are necessary, addressing all components of STEM and not just some.

Friberg: We can increase the number of underrepresented minorities and women in STEM by empowering them through STEM programs at an early age, facilitating the development of their support network throughout their STEM career, and providing financial aid. This type of “360-degree” learning and exposure, paired with programs that aid in the development and optimization of a support network are what allowed me to explore my dreams and pursue them successfully.

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)