Ericka Oliver, a senior biology major at Tuskegee University, had been preparing to go to medical school since she was 16 and “freaked out” when she didn’t perform as well as she expected on the Medical College Admissions Test.
Derell Hampton, a sophomore clinical laboratory science major at Tuskegee, wants to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience but lamented his average grades.
Oliver and Hampton were not alone in their concerns at a recent AAAS-organized conference in Washington, D.C. But they learned from career scientists that they don’t need the highest test scores or straight A’s to be successful in science.
“You don’t have to be perfect to find your place in the science community,” said Frank Chestnut, a Tuskegee junior in biology.
The students were encouraged to persevere and plan ahead for career success during the 2011 Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), hosted by AAAS Education and Human Resources and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Human Resource Development. During a time when Congress has continued to support recruitment of scientists from historically under-represented groups—one of the aims of the recently reauthorized America COMPETES Act—it is important for policymakers to appreciate the work that such funding supports, said Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources for AAAS.
“I think that if anyone were to come through and look at the posters and meet you, then there wouldn’t be the arguments about providing resources,” Malcom told students in her opening remarks at the 24-26 February conference. In too many cases, she said, those who are appropriating the money are “at a distance from the actual people who would be helped.” Malcom urged attendees to work harder at “communicating the value that these programs actually provide, to our institutions, to our communities, to our states, and to our nation.”
“Minority students that are first in their family to attend college or that come from high schools that did not prepare them adequately, from a low socioeconomic background or a combination of these, simply don’t receive information about science career possibilities or know how to achieve their scientific career objectives,” said Sonia Zarate, academic administrator of the Undergraduate Research Center at the University of California-Los Angeles. “Participating in the ERN Conference provides these resources and presenting their research allows these students to identify as scientists, which makes them more likely to persist in science majors.”
Nearly 600 students attended the conference, 475 of them undergraduates. Undergraduate and graduate students made 358 poster presentations and 153 oral presentations. More than 170 institutions were represented by students and exhibitors.
Sarwan Dhir, biotechnology professor and director of the Center for Biotechnology at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, thought it was important for the students to learn about the political environment, especially regarding federal funding and career opportunities, they will face while pursuing careers in science. “The students really need to be aware” of academic politics, he said. “Dr. Malcom brought this up—they never learn that in their classes.”
At the conference, speakers shared their experiences overcoming challenges and discrimination. NASA engineer Marco Midon spoke to students about his struggles in college after losing his vision as a child. “I didn’t get through school in four to six years,” he said. “It took me 12, 13 years. I had to make up my own mathematical symbols because at the time, Braille didn’t have a symbol for integration … or a derivative symbol.”
“I stumbled in a course early on in graduate school,” said Robert Megginson, a University of Michigan mathematics professor, and a professor told him that he wasn’t cut out for graduate study.
Moreover, as the son of a white father and Native American mother, Megginson faced possible discrimination from a grade-school teacher. “Though my mother had taught me to read several years before, and I was frequently the first one whose hand went up when the question was asked, I often had it ignored,” he said. “The most pernicious part was, you know, I believed her.”
Megginson’s story reminded Larry Slaughter, a student at Cornell University, of his first grade reading teacher who put him in a remedial class. “My mom had to continuously fight to get me up there” in the class where he belonged, Slaughter said. “I didn’t give it too much thought until I heard him.”
The speakers at the conference “have been wonderful,” said Whitney Lagrone, a senior chemistry major at University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff. “It’s letting us know there are different ways to get where you want to go.”
One’s career in science “doesn’t have to be a set path,” said Shye Richardson, a junior biology major at Fort Valley State University. “You can make mistakes but determination and drive are the qualities necessary for a successful career.”
“You’re going to walk your own path in your own moccasins and that’s the way it should be,” Megginson said.
Speakers at the conference encouraged attendees to consider all of the options open to them as they earn advanced degrees in science.
“Because my own area of interest is mathematics education, I really would like to make a pitch here for education as an interesting career pathway for folks with incredible talent and interest in science because helping more young people acquire that kind of interest and move into these areas is an essential piece of the scientific enterprise,” Joan Ferrini-Mundy, NSF assistant director of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources said. “So keep it in mind as a possibility.”
Megginson suggested that attendees consider science jobs outside of academia and stressed the importance of preparation for career success. “Generally, opportunities do, to some extent, amount to being in the right place at the right time,” he said, but “they also come from being ready and willing to take advantage of them when they do happen.”
In a workshop on developing career plans, Jennifer Hobin, director of science and policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, told workshop participants that only 42% of Ph.Ds in science and engineering work at a four-year college. Moreover, half of post-doctoral students in the United States come from international institutions, putting more professional pressure on students in the United States.
“These are folks that you are competing with and you need to make yourself as marketable as you can be so you get the job,” Hobin said. “It takes a lot of planning to make yourself as marketable as possible.”
“It helped me set some goals that I was self-consciously aware of. I keep a task list in my phone but this made me think about it more,” said Jamie Parker, a recent graduate student in neuroscience at Lehman College-City University of New York.
The conference led Nadya Ali, a sophomore biology major at the University of Washington, Seattle, to reconsider her initial career plans. “Before I thought I had it set, that I was going to do an M.D. program,” she said. Now she’s thinking of doing an M.D./Ph.D. program.
However, Darbin Reyes, a graduate student in computer engineering at Cornell University, felt more certain about his plans to pursue a Ph.D. “I’m here more to prepare my application better,” he said. “I’m not really on the fence anymore.”
Learn more about the AAAS Education, Capacity and Career Programs.