Arundhati Nag knows all about the “leaky pipeline.” When it comes to studying STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math — female students tend to “drop off” more than their male counterparts as they advance in their education. So when the idea arose to have Clark students talk to Worcester Public Schools classes about careers in science, she was all in — as were members of her lab group.
High school STEM teachers in Worcester had shared with Thomas Del Prete, director of the Adam Institute for Urban Teaching and School Practice at Clark, that their students were not motivated to pursue careers in science. Del Prete arranged a brainstorming session with fellow Clark Professor Letina Jeranyama and high school STEM teachers Amber Pouliot, Sarah Shepro, Peter Weyler, Jody Bird, Elisa Abelson, and Ian Selig, and together they created the plan to have students visit the high school classes — virtually, because of the pandemic.
Nag, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Clark, says the teachers were instrumental in arranging the sessions, during which a diverse group from her lab presented to the Advanced Placement classes about their journeys in science.
“Representation matters,” Nag says. High school students (or younger) from underrepresented groups, including women, don’t see themselves much in science fields. And if they’re the first in their families to even think about college, they may not have any idea of how to start.
“My students have already been through it,” Nag says. “They can speak authentically about their journeys.” The diverse group — Chi Nguyen ’21, Iryna Onasenko ’20, M.S. ’21, Kim Nguyen ’22, Maddie Letendre ’20, M.S. ’21, Jue (Amy) Chen ’20, and Ph.D. student Ariane Borges — created presentations and had almost 20 virtual visits with students at various levels in Worcester.
Along with describing their work in science, the Clark students shared information on available resources to help prospective scientists pay for their educations, including grants and scholarships.
Chi Nguyen, a biochemistry and molecular biology major from Vietnam, worked in Nag’s lab on the synthesis and cyclization of peptides to be used as cancer therapeutics. “When I was in high school, I knew I liked science but had no idea what I could do with a science degree,” she says. “It’s important for students to have a glimpse into what doing research looks like and how to get there. I hope that my story, and struggles, somewhat inspired these students to pursue science, knowing that it is a bumpy road but a very exciting one.”
Onasenko, who received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology, echoes those sentiments. “It was quite important for me to be able to share the limitless world of science with young students and show them that science can be fun and impactful. Even if one student decides to pursue science as their learning path after the presentation, I would be extremely happy.”
The presentations also stressed the importance of mentorship in science, especially for women. “No one in my family works in the scientific field,” Kim Nguyen says. “Having someone act as a guide and mentor helps you consider options you are not very familiar with and opens new doors. Moreover, we need more people in STEM coming from different backgrounds and perspectives.”
Mentorship is built into Nag’s lab. “Having someone to look up to is so important,” she says. STEM fields tend to have an intrinsic bias against women, so being part of a lab with a strong female presence is crucial for new students (women comprise more than half of Nag’s lab). In addition, the lab culture should be a close, supportive one.
Chen, a biochemistry and molecular biology major from China, found plenty of support in Nag’s lab. “My confidence in studying science was always defeated by the language barrier,” she says. “However, because of the encouragement and support from my mentor and lab mates, I am able to continue my passion and pursue life science. I’m pleased I was given the opportunity to share my journey to inspire others in the Worcester community. I hope my story can motivate students to pursue their passion despite any obstacles.”
The obstacle Letendre faced came from within. “Throughout my career in science, I have struggled with ‘imposter syndrome,’ or feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt,” says Letendre. “Many women in science struggle with this feeling. I remember being in high school and feeling passionate about science and health care, but thinking there was no way that I was hardworking enough or intelligent enough to pursue it. I think that it is very important to establish a supportive and encouraging environment for students who are interested in pursuing a career in science. In a field that tends to be harsh and competitive, it is important to remind kids how capable they are, and that science can be fun!”
Imposter syndrome is a real problem for women in science, Nag says. She created a series of mingles in the Chemistry Department focusing on issues facing women in STEM, including how to address diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns. “As scientists, we’re not always trained to address these issues,” she says. “It’s important to have allies.”
And sometimes, those allies appear on a computer screen to prove that a career in science is more than just an idea — it’s a definite possibility.