In late November, a cohort of middle school girls from Burien, Washington traveled to the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) for an introduction to the basics of stem cell biology, bioprinting, and gene editing. First, though, the visitors absorbed a few science lessons that are impossible to observe, measure, or prove.
It is cool to love science. It is okay to fail. Engineering is not (just) for boys. Follow your curiosity. Believe in yourself. The words of wisdom came from ISCRM faculty and trainees who spoke from personal experience about their careers in science while sharing pictures of themselves as children.
After all, it was a love of science that brought Julie Mathieu, Shiri Levy, Silvia Marchiano, and Lil Pabon to ISCRM from France, Israel, Italy, and Puerto Rico. Undaunted by new languages and long journeys, they carved their own paths to the University of Washington. Now they are all professional scientists contributing to biomedical research efforts with profound implications for human health.
That sense of possibility is the idea behind Techbridge Girls, the NSF-funded nonprofit that brought the visiting girls from Cascade Middle School to UW Medicine South Lake Union for a one-day, real-world experience – part of the organization’s mission to expand economic opportunity for girls from low-income communities by engaging them in STEM programming.
Miriam Kabore is a Program Manager with Pacific Northwest Techbridge Girls. “Today, too many girls are locked out of STEM and have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” she says. “Overwhelming odds are stacked against them: they live in low-income communities, go to high-poverty schools and experience bias due to their race, class and ethnicity. Techbridge Girls’ mission is to level the playing field and empower girls from low-income communities to achieve upward mobility and financial stability. Field trips like the visit to ISCRM are extremely important because it allows girls to not only learn about careers in STEM fields, but also view themselves in that field.”
After ice-breakers in Brotman Auditorium, the students rotated through three stations focused on heart functioning, bioprinting, and stem cells, then participated in a group game designed to help them learn about gene-editing technology.
Lil Pabon, the Research Operations Director in the Murry Lab, coordinated the tour and hands-on components of the visit. “Our goal is to share our excitement for science,” says Pabon. “We want to help them to see us as real people who were once a lot like them so that they can see themselves as teachers, researchers, or doctors.”
Pabon emphasized the desire to expose the students to the breadth of research happening at ISCRM. “We chose activities that allowed the girls to experience a range of topics, starting with stem cell science, but also the diseases and organs we study, and the ways we use cutting-edge technology to solve problems.” Feedback from the participants suggests the effort was successful. “We heard from one student who said there were more fields in STEM than she ever thought and another who was impressed by the ways 3D printing could be used to solve health problems.”
Shiri Levy, a postdoc in the Ruohola-Baker Lab, explains her reason for being a mentor to girls who often face barriers to STEM education and STEM careers. “My motivation was to show the girls that they can break the glass ceiling and that with enough will power they can get anywhere they want to go, to fulfill their dreams. I found it so rewarding taking part of this and leading to some change in the way they think, act and see themselves.”
In the final segment of the day, the visiting girls returned to Brotman Auditorium for one-on-one conversations with ISCRM faculty, staff, and trainees. The round robin format allowed the girls to get a variety of perspectives of about science, school, and life from the mentors pictured to the left and other ISCRM community members including Akshita Khanna, Yennhi Vohoang, Mimi Krutein, Kelly Stevens, and Erica Jonlin. The opportunity to interact with a working scientist made a big impression on at least one of the girls. “They inspired me to work harder. I learned how scientists use cells to find cures for disease. I would love to work there.”