GO GIRL: Promoting girls in STEM

Professor Amanda Munson of Shenandoah University shares her passion for inspiring girls to pursue careers in STEM fields. Amanda describes GO GIRL™ (Genomic Opportunities for Girls in Research Labs), an education outreach program designed to boost confidence and provide hands-on science experience to high school girls in a research laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment.


Amanda Munson:

I'd like to thank everyone for this opportunity. What really struck me in the intro was the humility part of it. We don't normally get up and talk about GO GIRL maybe as much as we should. It's a small group. It's very personal, so this is an amazing honor that we just couldn't have imagined.


I'm going to start out with a little story. We're all born scientists. Now, if you think about that, you take a child, and you put them in the high chair, and you give them a toy. They play with it for a little bit, and they drop it. They cry, and you pick it up, and you give it back to them, and what do they do? They drop it again. On purpose. We think they have no idea what they're doing, but they have a very good idea what they're doing. What they're doing is exploring gravity, cause and effect, and reproducibility.


If we're born scientists, it's really surprising that we have very few individuals who are graduating with degrees in STEM related fields, and even more striking, few people who are actually persisting in STEM careers. You can drop out, choose a different path at many steps along the way, for many different reasons. But when you look at the numbers, women and minorities are leaving this path at a much higher rate than men and Caucasians.


A recent Harvard Business Review article actually estimates about 40% of the STEM degree holders, bachelor's degree holders, are women. Not too bad, but then you look at it. Only 15% of the STEM workforce in the mid-to-late career phase is actually female. We obviously, and we all know, we need a larger STEM workforce, but for innovation, which is really what's going to be the key in the future, you need new ideas, new approaches, new perspectives, and new solutions. We need a larger workforce, but we also need a more diverse workforce.


If you support and encourage women and minorities to persist in pursuing STEM, then you're going to be addressing both of those issues. Our solution to it was GO GIRL. GO GIRL was founded by three female junior faculty members right when we all started working. We got together, developed this program based on our experiences and our expertise, and our passion for what got us to where we are.


We hold it in actual research labs, in our university research and teaching labs, and it's really there to reach out to the girls who maybe aren't sure if the biomedical sciences are for them. Or maybe we hear from their teachers that they really need a boost of confidence to take it to the next step, or they really need a challenge. We try and provide them with all of that. We do it in our actual labs, so it's very hands-on and authentic.


We start with them on the very first day, we put a micropipette in their hands, so they learn how to do that. They learn how load and run an agarose gel, and they learn to do a bacterial transformation, day one. By the end of the week they've actually done their own DNA fingerprint, that's half of our class portrait, and have begun to explore structure function relationships with proteins. The authenticity is huge, but it's also nonthreatening. We're all women, some younger than others, who are interested in the biomedical sciences. It's not threatening, we're like minded individuals. So in that environment they don't have to be afraid of seeming too smart, or asking that silly question, because we're all having those questions that open to be themselves, and when it's just women there's a whole lot of confidence that comes out of that, being just in that single gender environment.


The other big thing is they're free to make mistakes, and learn from mistakes, and not worry what's going to happen on that lab report grade that they have to turn in and they're graded in the class. So, by being hands-on, and authentic, and nonthreatening it can be fun. It's fun for them, it's fun for us, and it's just key to make science not about the facts, but about the fun and the passion that we all have for it.


The other big thing is to make it personal. GO GIRL is small, we keep it small for a very good reason. Only 16 girls a session, as long as we're counting correctly, and it lets us as the faculty have interactions with the girls. It's much more easy to be personal, but it also gives them the opportunity to personally connect with the science. So, we use their own DNA for the fingerprint, but we also have them use their own DNA to check their genotype for a gene involved in bitter taste perception, and then, we have them taste test a bitter compound. And we can talk about population dynamics, Asians are much more likely to be able to perceive bitterness than people of African descent, or particularly Indian descent. You can see global population patterns on that, but they can also look at the prediction between what their genotype said and were they able to taste it, and it makes it incredibly relatable and personal to them, which is huge.


The other big thing is just how critical mentorship is, and it struck me how we're all hitting on the same things. You need to see something that you can relate to, in order to really give you the confidence to move on. So, the mentorship, studies have shown that a female mentor can have a very huge impact on a young woman's decision to pursue a career and to see themselves in that career. So, as a small program we have female student helpers, so not the participants themselves, but undergraduate, graduate students, professional students come in and help us in the lab. So you get those individual interactions, and individual interactions with the scientists themselves in the lab. And since, as we all know, and they're coming to discover, there's so many things we can do with our passion. We love the biomedical sciences, what can we do with it? It's not just MD of PhD, there's so many other options, and it's great that we're celebrating all of that here, but they need to see that.


So we bring in female professionals in the biomedical sciences to talk to the girls over lunch, and tell them about their career, and how they got there, and what it's like to be a woman in that field. So they're getting an idea, and we're a very diverse group, the girls are a very diverse group, and so they get to see what science is really like, not what everyone thinks it's like. The personal connections and the mentorship and the connections to the science really give them a sense of confidence, and it's that confidence that they are going to take with them and use to navigate any career they choose in STEM.


It takes a whole lot of passion to pull it off. It's a tremendous amount of fun, and a tremendous amount of work, but by the end the girls have such energy and enthusiasm, and you're seeing their own passion come forward, that it fuels us better than any amount of coffee that we've consumed for the rest of the week could possibly do. It's just an amazing, amazing experience, and on the last day the girls kept asking, "Can we bring our parents in?" You want to bring your parents in? Okay.


So we now have them bring the parents in on the last day, and these girls who, when we handed them a micropipette looked at it like it was some foreign object and were afraid to use it, they're showing their parents around, and "Look at what we did this week, here's the artwork I did, here's the experiments I've done, the bacteria I transformed. Here is our class DNA fingerprint." They see all of that, and they've got enthusiasm and passion for it, and it's great to see. And we see it when they come back and say, "Can you help us with a science fair project? Could you write us a letter of recommendation for college?" Or just to say, "Hey, guess what I'm up to?" And it's just so encouraging to see that.


They leave our program with a "STEM is for me" and this "I can" attitude, which is just huge for getting them to move forward. So we have four days with 16 girls. It's not a lot, it's not going to address all the issues with women or minorities in science and STEM, but it's a start, and it's a big start. And we're hearing from the girls and their parents that GO GIRL's making a profound impact on their educational and career choices.


In the end, Tracy Nickola and I, who co-founded the program, we tell the girls that one of the reasons we do this is because we've been so tremendously fortunate in our careers, and we want to pay it forward. We want the girls to see and appreciate, and take their passion and develop that, and their successes, and pay it forward to the next generation. By creating this environment of people who are excited and enthusiastic about STEM, we can encourage more women, more minorities to enter STEM fields, which is going to solve part of the STEM workforce issues. Thank you.

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