On giving back and scientific philanthropy

Travis’ Note: Today’s guest post comes from our friend and colleague Atif Kukaswadia, aka Mr Epidemiology.  You can find more on Atif at the bottom of this post.

I’d like you to watch that video [email subscribers can view the video by visiting the blog itself]. After watching it, tell me you’re not fascinated by what Neil deGrasse Tyson says. I’ve seen a few interviews he’s done, and every time I leave shaking my head and being completely blown away. Excitement and passion is contagious, and seeing someone be that energized about their work can influence the way you think about a topic, encouraging you to further explore that field. Nowhere is this more valuable or noticeable than in STEM careers and school-aged youth (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

Role models are an important part of life. When you’re a kid, there are always people you look up to, who, in your 10 year old mind, are the most amazing people in the history of the world. They can make you interested in an area you otherwise wouldn’t consider, or make you take guitar lessons to learn the guitar solo from Sweet Child O’ Mine (a young Mr Epidemiology really liked rock music). Role models can range from professional athletes to business people, and include parents and older siblings. But while there are lots of athletes, musicians and movie stars who can be considered role models, how many science role models are there?

With the exception of your middle or high school science teacher, how often would a child interested in science have a chance to interact with a real scientist? This blog post from Sociological Images highlights how a sample of seventh graders view scientists. In short, we all wear lab coats, have crazy hair and live in our own world. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t worn a lab coat since undergrad – my SAS code isn’t going to spill all over me. A lot of youth don’t understand what we do, and more importantly, the range of what it is we do.

There are some “famous” scientists including Bill NyeCarl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson (featured in the video above), and there have been attempts to make scientists more interesting and accessible, such as the Rock Stars of Science Campaign and Science Cheerleaders. But how often do youth get to actually talk to them? And do youth ever get a chance to meet them?

Not likely. But you can help.

As someone in a STEM career path, you can talk to youth about your experiences and encourage them to consider a future in STEM fields. There are a myriad of programs aimed at bringing science to life for youth.Let’s Talk Science and Actua are both STEM-based outreach programs, where undergraduate and graduate students are paired with teachers to go into classes and give a talk. CIHR has the Synapse program that will send you regular emails about upcoming mentorship opportunities in your area. Being on the mailing list doesn’t obligate you to participate, but if you see something interesting, you can volunteer your time.

In addition, currently, school boards across Canada and the US are gearing up for Science Fair season. Young, impressionable minds are putting together posters and displays, collecting data all in the name of science and preparing talks to explain what they did.

And those fairs need judges.

Most of my readers are in university in some capacity – ranging from first year undergraduates all the way to new investigators. I encourage you to find a science fair near you, and volunteer an evening to help judge those programs. Tell your friends, make an evening of it – go judge posters and then go for drinks afterwards! My research group has sent a few people for the past two years, and we always leave blown away by how innovative these youth are [Peter’s note: I did this for a few years while in grad school as well and it was always a wonderful time. Some of these kids are brilliant!]

In particular, I would like to encourage my female colleagues to volunteer at these events. There has been a lot of work looking at why there are fewer females than males in STEM careers. As a female in those fields, you can have a conversation with these young researchers that male scientists simply cannot, either through the activities above, or through organizations set up specifically to encourage young girls to consider STEM careers. I can’t comment on this issue myself, so for a better understanding, here are some great pieces on this important issue. The Sociological Images link above raises an interesting point about this: Girls were asked to draw a scientist before and after meeting one. Before meeting a scientist, only 36% of girls drew a female scientist, and this increased to 57% after meeting a scientist.

As a student in a STEM field, you’re uniquely positioned to help stimulate curiosity and foster interest among youth. Many of us wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a mentor or someone who encouraged that passion when we were that age, and it is our responsibility to pass that onto the next generation of young scientists.

I’m going to leave you with this quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson (if it wasn’t already clear, he’s my science idol):

The best educators are the ones that inspire their students. That inspiration comes from a passion that teachers have for the subject they’re teaching. Most commonly, that person spent their lives studying that subject, and they bring an infectious enthusiasm to the audience.

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

Do you know other ways young researchers and students can mentor school-aged youth that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

Atif Kukaswadia

About the author: I’m an Epidemiologist. Well, I’m learning how to be one – I’m currently doing my PhD. Contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t mean I’m a skin doctor. Epidemiology is a broad field that encompasses methods and techniques used to address issues that affect populations. Or, put more eloquently “Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of disease, and disease related states, in a population of individuals.” In short – we study who is getting sick, what is making them sick, and how sick they are getting. You can replace “sick” with any health outcome there, and there’s an epidemiologist looking at it. We do other stuff too, but that’s a story for another day. He blogs at MrEpidemiology.com, and can be found on twitter @MrEpid.

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2 Responses to On giving back and scientific philanthropy

  1. Pingback: Guest Post on Obesity Panacea: On giving back and scientific philanthropy « Mr Epidemiology

  2. Gary says:

    One example that could be emulated is the Alberta Science Literacy Association. It is a group of networks in Alberta that encourages scientists and engineers to share in school classrooms. They also do many other community events and support teachers via workshops and science kits that may be borrowed for free.
    See http://www.asla.ca/ for more information and links to the various networks.