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Minority students share their stories in science so others feel power of representation

Minority students share their stories in science so others feel power of representation

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When MJ Kirch went on an online field trip, she chose to take part in a session where a presenter working in a scientific field looked like her.

For MJ, it was important to show an interest in what an African American like herself had to say. Not surprising from a seventh-grader who has thought about being a surgeon but according to her mom, Tasha Kirch, is most interested in whatever career will allow her to help people.

“I know that it’s important for people who are underrepresented in any community ... to shine the light on them, so I thought that would be interesting to look at,” said MJ, who attends Core Knowledge Charter School in Verona.

MJ was among the students and teachers who took part in an online session called “My Story in Science So Far: From Voices Underrepresented in Science,” which was part of a field trip to the Wisconsin Science Festival in October. It was the 10th festival, but this year was offered differently because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was produced by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, Morgridge Institute for Research and UW-Madison.

The session presenters are members of the Science and Medicine Graduate Research Scholars, a program offering professional development, community resources and funding opportunities for underrepresented minority students at UW-Madison.

The idea of the session MJ attended was for the younger students to hear the scholars’ science story and their background and see how similar their journeys were to their own. Much of the time the scholars answered the audience’s questions, which spanned a wide range of topics.

“I wanted to hear like what their story was and how they became scientists,” said another listener, Alyssa Vu, a seventh-grader at Core Knowledge, who is Chinese. “I thought it would be interesting.”

Donna Li, a graduate student in the cancer biology program at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at UW-Madison and one of the speakers for the session, said in an interview that she was the first in her family to pursue science. She is originally from Los Angeles, where her parents were refugees from Vietnam. Her mom worked as a nanny, and her dad was a contractor.

“Not until I was in undergrad was I able to find mentors who got me into research. I really enjoyed the creative and exploratory aspect of research so that led me to pursue it further,” said Li, who identifies as Vietnamese Chinese. “I’ve been fortunate that my ethnicity hasn’t really affected me, but I think being a female in science is a little difficult.”

She is thinking about pursuing a career as a principal investigator in the competitive field of research. She said it aligns with her goal of inclusion.

“It’s at the highest position for the greatest amount of scientific autonomy. You are in charge of the research,” Li said. “Being able to influence the next generation of scientists is really exciting.”

Amy Reimer, middle school math and science teacher at Core Knowledge Charter School, said she has taken her students to the festival every year and also has brought her own children to it. This year her students chose four sessions and then wrote about what they got out of them.

“It’s just a great way to show kids the application of science in their lives. It sparks their interest. It expose them to careers in science. It exposes them to what is going on in their own community and it connects them with resources that are available in the Madison area,” Reimer said. “It was really neat to hear (underrepresented students’) stories through that lens.”

Another presenter, Kaila Javius-Jones, is a Ph.D. student in the pharmaceutical sciences program at UW-Madison who is pursuing a research career in the pharmaceutical industry. She said in an interview she has received great support from her mother, who didn’t have the opportunity to continue her education after becoming a mom right after high school.

Javius-Jones said she wanted the students listening to feel the power of representation. She said as an African American, she felt out of place before she had experiences with others who look like her.

“You may not see others in science that look like you but they do exist and I am proof of it,” she said. “When I personally felt representation, it confirmed my place in science.”

Jerrod Buckner, the moderator for the session who is on the outreach team that puts on the festival, said the session on scientists from underrepresented groups was a first this year.

“We wanted the opportunity to have scientists that look like the students to be able to work with the students in some shape or form,” Buckner said. “The students ran the show and that’s what we wanted. They asked a ton of questions.”

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