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Emerging Researchers Program Unites Underrepresented Students with STEM Leaders

Student presenting research at the 2020 ERN conference
The Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM offers opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to present their research and connect with leaders in their fields. | Michael J. Colella for AAAS

Each year, the Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM brings together more than a thousand undergraduate and graduate students from groups underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to share their research.

Between conferences, the program – led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation – is strengthening the ERN community by reaching out to students through a series of webinars with STEM leaders and by highlighting the goals and activities of the decade-old ERN program through a new video.

A webinar hosted by AAAS on May 11 featured Kizzmekia Corbett sharing her journey to becoming a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health and leader of the coronavirus vaccine efforts at NIH’s Vaccine Research Center. Corbett reinforced the importance mentoring played in advancing her career and shared with ERN students what she wished she had known as a college student herself.

Iris Wagstaff, AAAS STEM program director, joined Corbett in the webinar and presented Corbett “as an example of excellence in STEM to our ERN community and the broader STEM community.”

Well before leading efforts to develop a vaccine to protect the public from COVID-19, Corbett became a scientist at the age of 16. Her parents required that she and her siblings get “educational” jobs as high school students. Through Project SEED, an internship program for high school students run by the American Chemical Society, Corbett began working in a laboratory at the nearby University of North Carolina.

The experience sparked a revelation. “I fell in love with the scientific process, the dynamic day-to-day,” said Corbett.

Corbett knew she wanted to live the self-directed life of a scientist. Which scientific field to pursue came later, as she used her college years to explore different fields of science, completing bachelor’s degrees in biology and sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She then returned to the University of North Carolina, where she earned her Ph.D.

Speaking to STEM scholars mostly from underrepresented groups, Corbett discussed uncomfortable instances she has faced as a woman of color in science. Many women of color face challenges in job hunting or salary negotiations that are not exclusive to the STEM field, but she noted that some people assume that a woman of color might not be a capable scientist.

Corbett recommended that ERN students surround themselves with people who believe in them as scientists. “Once you recognize who those people are, keep them in your corner. When you need criticism, call them. When you need praise, call them,” Corbett said.

In speaking of the importance of mentorship she urged students not to feel bound by a single mentor-mentee relationship.

“The type of mentor that I needed when I was an undergrad majoring in two things and trying to work in labs is different than the type of mentor that I need leading a team responding to a pandemic,” Corbett said.

She formed her “career committee” from a small group of mentors whom she brings together in regular video calls to tap from each of their strengths.

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Corbett urged students to be specific about what they want from a mentor. A more specific request than “Will you mentor me?” is likely to yield a more fruitful response, she said. And if you can offer a skill or strength to a potential mentor, that is ideal – after all, a mentor-mentee connection is a two-way relationship, said Wagstaff.

As she offered advice to students in STEM, Corbett was asked what she wished she had known as a 21-year-old college student. After joking “books before boys,” Corbett stressed the importance of writing and presentation skills for all scientists, whether they are explaining the importance of their work to someone or, like Corbett, to national audiences on CNN.

Such skills are “the crux of what the ERN conference is,” said Wagstaff.

In addition to connecting to experts and ERN students through its webinar series, the ERN program also focuses on sharing its longstanding impact with a broader audience. ERN was selected to take part in the STEM for All Video Showcase, an annual weeklong online display of three-minute videos on more than 170 federally funded projects on science, mathematics, engineering and computer science education in formal and informal settings.

The interactive event brings together researchers, educators, policymakers and the public to learn about innovative educational approaches, take part in facilitated discussions about each video and vote on the best projects. The ERN video, “NextGenSTEM: Diverse Researchers Addressing Global Problems,” was one of the most discussed videos during the showcase, said Wagstaff.

The video makes clear the goals of the program: “We focus on broadening participation, on surveying groups that are historically disenfranchised in STEM and to make sure that students from those groups have the same opportunity as all other students,” said Claudia Rankin, program director of NSF’s Division of Human Resource Development.

The video also captured the voices of students who have attended the national conference to present their research and join a growing STEM community. Many students spoke about how inspiring it is to hear leaders in STEM offer advice and share their own journeys.

“You want to be in their shoes,” said Katrina Jackson, a master’s student in psychology at Virginia State University, in the video. “You’ve gone through what I have been through. That means I can get to where you are now. So that’s my favorite part, because it gave me hope.”



Andrea Korte

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