Thoughts on Girls in Science from Wesleyan Student Assistants

This August, Wesleyan University held Girls in Science Summer Camp, a one-week experiential learning camp for 4th-6th graders. Girls in Science employs an intergenerational mentoring model. The program’s staff is comprised of women Wesleyan University faculty members from the chemistry, engineering, and biology departments, Wesleyan student assistants, and aspiring high school scientists – who all work in collaboration to develop the next generation of innovative leaders in fields of science in a safe and nurturing space.  

We heard from our four Wesleyan student assistants about their own journeys through STEM and their experiences working for Girls in Science.

 

Brynn Assignon ’20

Brynn helping campers create their end-of-camp posters.

For the longest time in my life, I was fascinated by science just because of the fact that it was not attainable to me. I am from Togo Africa and back home we did not have a lot of resources to do scientific experiments. However, I was awestruck by the small amount of science that we did. Science class was like a whole different world to me. It seemed like the one place where everything was different. We were never allowed to conduct any experiments, most of the time we just drew out images from textbooks and memorized all the parts of the body. Our teacher was the only one who would conduct an experiment, and one day he did something really simple like light ethanol on fire, but I was mesmerized. It was like the coolest thing I ever saw. I have however been blessed to do a lot of science when I came to the U.S., and I have been learning a lot. Last summer, I worked with the girls in the Girls in Science program and I was reminded once again of how fascinating little things are as a child and how much impact that stimulus has on our lives as we grow. I am really glad and excited to participate in this program again this year!

One of the end-of-camp science posters.

This was my second time being an assistant for the Girls in Science program. It is a camp that I resonate with a lot as I know how much small experiences from my youth helped shape my values and views on the world. As a young child, I did not really know much about science but I was fascinated by the little that I experienced in class. It sparked my creativity and it seemed to have so many complexities that it seemed unattainable or impossible. While working with the girls this past week, I found myself learning so many new things. I felt so excited to learn the things that they were learning. Seeing them think and understand things reminded me again that children are smarter than we think. I remember working with one of the girls Isabel, she was drawing her Draw a Scientist poster and I was asking her to explain the picture she had. She explained to me that the lady scientist she had drawn was trying to decide whether or not she wanted to perform her experiment because she had a “hypothesis”(her words!) that if she mixed her chemicals it would cause an explosion. I felt so surprised because I didn’t realize she learned so much about what a scientist does. For example, that a scientist has to design experiments and develop hypotheses. I also enjoyed working with our crew. My fellow counselors, Nicole, Professor Taylor and all the other Professors were a joy to work with. Everyone was passionate and kind. I am happy to have been a part of this camp and I will miss all the girls dearly!

Helen Karimi
Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Grad Student

Helen wears a brain hat

Did you know that the simple task of brushing your teeth is not so simple after all? Your brain, eyes, and muscles must work so incredibly hard while you sing that “Happy Birthday” song while brushing your teeth. And what if I told you that we didn’t always know that. I love science because it allows us to truly understand ourselves and the world around us. There are so many different fields within science, ranging from the study of butterflies to the study of space. Can you imagine being able to think of a new idea in your mind or to ask a question that have not been answered before and then being able to do something about it? As a scientist, I have been able to learn about how and why everything happens the way it does while helping others discover aspects of our world we have yet to understand. I love science because it is fun and has the power to feed our curiosity.

Learning about brains!

I served as a helper for the Girls in Science camp two years ago and absolutely loved the experience, so you can imagine how happy I was about the opportunity to also help this summer. When I was first introduced to the camp, I too was facing discouraging comments about my gender and future aspirations. I have always been fascinated with how chemical interactions between neurons translate into perception of one’s environment. This passion for neuroscience and my experiences as a Neuroscience and Behavior major at Wesleyan University have inspired me to pursue a career in neurosurgery. For a long time, my expression of interest in such a career was met with discouraging comments like, “that isn’t a career for women,” or “how will you be able to compete with the male neurosurgeons?” The apparent limitations that some may think my gender places on me is a concept I have been exposed to since childhood. I grew up in Azerbaijan where females are encouraged to stay at home and raise a family than to pursue higher education. However, I was lucky to have been raised by parents who believe in education equality and who have brought me to the U.S. where I could pursue my dreams. If it wasn’t for my parents and the amazing female role models I have had growing up, it would have been very hard to respectfully disregard others’ words of discouragement about my desire to become a neurosurgeon. Serving as a helper for the Girls in Science Camp has been incredibly meaningful; it has provided me with an opportunity to do exactly what my role models have done for me – to empower another young female to pursue any and all her passions regardless of her gender. I hope that, as a result of their experience at this camp, the girls will continue to pursue their interests, even when others tell them that they can’t or shouldn’t do so because they are girls.
On a less serious note, working with the girls this summer has been incredibly fun. I love science because it allows us to uncover realities of our word, whether its through studying large planets with the use of telescopes or incredibly small neuronal synapses using electron microscopes. It has been fulfilling to see the girls get excited when learning about comets, bacteria, or the human brain. I would like to thank Dr. Erika Taylor and everyone who helps make this camp happen for the opportunity to invest in the very bright futures of our aspiring female scientists.

Isabella Reilly
Physics Grad Student

Isabella helping campers during the workshop on light

My journey into STEM began in middle school, through my very first chemistry, biology, and earth science classes. I enjoyed these classes because of the questions they let me answer and explore. I was intrigued by the way I could better understand what I saw around me, and how we could discover more from the foundations built by others in our field. Then in high school, I took my first physics class freshman year. I liked how the equations not only made sense mathematically, but they described what I actually experienced in the world around me. When I arrived at Wesleyan, I explored many disciplines but was again drawn to my introductory physics class. I liked the challenge of wrapping my brain around the concepts, and the satisfaction of understanding the theory and math coming together. As I continued taking physics classes, I realized how the theories could answer questions about the nature of the world that my other classes could not answer. During my senior year, I joined a research lab where I have been able to take a step beyond learning the fundamentals to take ownership of a research project. I have appreciated using what I have learned at Wesleyan to make contributions of my own.

Campers made necklaces out of strawberry DNA

Throughout the week of this year’s Girls in Science camp, there were many instances where I felt inspired by both the campers and the leaders. For me, the most inspiring moment was seeing all of the girls create their posters together at the end of the week. There was excitement about which pictures and words they would add to the posters to demonstrate what they had learned and which activities they enjoyed most. Walking around, I was impressed by how well they were explaining different concepts they had learned and the fun they were having reflecting back on their favorite experiments and projects. I had been lucky enough throughout the week to participate in and help out with many of the projects the girls had done. It was really interesting for me to refresh my knowledge of science fundamentals such as DNA, neurons, light, and binary digits, and to see the girls ask countless questions as their curiosity was sparked. One morning, after their introduction to DNA, the girls couldn’t stop asking questions about Dolly, the sheep who was the first mammal to be successfully cloned. Those questions, which were answered with Professor Taylor’s expertise in biochemistry, are the heart of the curiosity that I believe to be the foundation of science. I recently graduated from Wesleyan as a physics major, and even now as a graduate student I sometimes forget to pause and reflect on which questions interest me and what I want to see answered, and I’m thankful this camp gave me a chance to do so. Without this curiosity, science does not exist, and I saw throughout the week that science can give girls the tools to not only ask these questions, but to answer them.

 

Ari Liu ’20

Ari helps a camper build a solar car

I grew up in a traditional Chinese family, and like many other Chinese parents, my parents believed that to have a good career and life I have to study STEM and be good at them. Also both my parents (and my two grandfathers) studied engineering, so my family is very pro-STEM and they talk about it so much that they almost made me hate it. The teenage me really wanted to be different from all the other science nerds in my family. However, math and science have their magical power that made me start to enjoy them (or maybe the love for science is just in my genes??). I started to find that the process of investigating and solving science/math questions was a lot of fun, and I especially loved doing physics and chemistry experiments in middle school, or watching demonstrations of them on my own. So later in high school, I tried every possible STEM subjects and decided that I really love physics and psychology, which are the two sciences that I study now at Wesleyan. It has not always been smooth and fun, however, since a lot of the STEM-related conversations and extracurricular activities were almost all boys, and some adults sometimes said or unconsciously hinted that boys are inherently better at math and science (which is so prejudiced and untrue). Hearing this comment always made me so angry, but I did not know how to respond or what to do, except for working hard to become better than boys and prove them wrong; so I was often afraid of making mistakes. Fortunately, I made friends with other girls interested in STEM, and we were able to support each other in these situations and in academics. In this way, STEM has also helped me to find a supportive community and valuable friendships in different stages of my life.

Campers learned Math concepts through card games

Last week was my first time working in the GIS camp, and it was a really memorable experience. Many of the girls did not have any contact with science before, and I was happy to see them enjoy getting to know it and found it very interesting. I am glad that I could help facilitate this fun learning process in a girls-friendly, pressure-free environment for them, which is what I wish could have experienced when I first learned about science in childhood. We cooperated with the high-schooler helpers in the classroom and presentations. It was nice getting to know them, since they have very diverse backgrounds but are all very passionate about science. I helped lead one of the activities, in which we made a comet with a group of girls to demonstrate the fundamental components of a comet. I have not made a comet before so it was also a new experience for me, and after a few times we even learned to improve the recipe to make a bigger and more realistic-looking comet. I was almost as excited as the kids when we succeeded, and was really happy to see them engaged in the process of making science. This activity really reminded me of what I enjoyed the most about science when I was a little girl – to experience science by doing it with my own hand. I believe this is also the best way to learn about science, and I’m really glad that I could help make it happen for them. Another part of the camp that I found interesting was the art projects that we do with the girls every afternoon. Finding the connections between sciences and arts is something that I have been interested in, and I believe math and sciences have their own aesthetic qualities that are often easily ignored. The art projects can help keep the girls engaged with the content, but is also a good way to introduce them to the beauty of science.

 

Thanks so much to all our Girls in Science faculty, staff, Wesleyan student assistants, and high school program assistants!

Click here if you’d like to see more photos from Girls in Science 2019: http://newsletter.blogs-staging.wesleyan.edu/2019/08/13/wesleyans-girls-in-science-summer-camp-gets-young-scientists-excited-about-stem/