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If/THEN® Ambassadors Reach Millions of Girls, Sharing Scientists’ Human Side and the Wonders of Science

STEM Queens is a web interview series | J’Tia Hart

This is the first in a three-part series (click here to read Part 2 and click here to read Part 3).

Over the past months, the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors have been wrapping up more than 90 “She Can Change the World” public engagement projects they developed with “mini-grant” funding provided by Lyda Hill Philanthropies. Many of them started planning their projects prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and had to find ways to reinvent their engagement activities – which overall are designed to target middle school girls, although some focused on other audiences, still with the goal of creating a more supportive environment for girls to go into STEM.

“The IF/THEN® Initiative intends to close some of the representation gap for women in STEM in a wide range of careers, particularly as represented in media, so middle school girls see themselves as scientists in the future,” says Kristin Lewis, AAAS project director who works on the program along with Program Associate Liz Crocker and Center Director Emily Therese Cloyd. “Our Ambassadors program is part of this, designed to find and empower amazing women in STEM in a wide variety of careers, some of which you might not automatically think of as STEM, and encourage them to become high profile role models for middle school girls.”

The Ambassadors’ projects ranged from creating partnerships between K-12 teachers and STEM professionals; to dance programs that integrate STEM; to an online recipe collection from scientists around the world; to a variety of short online videos, shows, and interviews that demonstrate how science can be useful in everyday life, and especially, how scientists are really just like the rest of us. We highlight six of the 90 projects in this series: read about the first two here.  

Ahna Skop – Lab Culture Recipes (Website Collection)

“A meal will change everything for people,” says Dr. Ahna Skop, professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “People have stereotypes about who you are… but if you share a meal with someone, you can learn to understand people.” As a child, Skop had a cookbook with recipes from around the world, and she and her mother worked their way through all of them. One favorite was ground nut stew from Ghana. “We would fantasize about going to these places,” she says. Her mother told her that if she studied hard, she could go to these countries when she was older.

This cultural exchange through recipes sparked the idea that perhaps food could also be a way to help scientists connect to people, and overcome stereotypes about scientists. So for her AAAS IF/THEN® project, Skop initially wanted to host “Lab Culture” dinner parties around the country where members of the public and scientists could get to know one another over a meal. Because of COVID, she decided to make a cookbook of recipes from scientists, so that kids in particular might use it with their parents, much as she did with hers, and have conversations about the scientists’ behind them as well.

However, Skop found she needed an online community in order to gather the recipes from scientists. So together with colleague Dr. Diana Chu, professor of cell and molecular biology at San Francisco State University, and a science writer and illustrator, they built a website and social media presence. Skop’s niece Amaya Cummins, now a college student at the University of California-Santa Cruz, helped make the website’s logo. Through the site, they collect and share food-related trivia about scientists (such as favorite cuisine to cook, typical breakfast food, and dream scientist dinner companions), as well as some of their recipes and photos. Skop was surprised that learning about these other sides of scientists actually revealed she had her own assumptions about people, too, and that they were often wrong.  Skop still plans to write a cookbook after she has collected more recipes (they currently have 164 scientist profiles and 60 recipes) and raised more money to write up a book proposal. 

J’Tia Hart – STEM Queens (Web Interview Series)

Like many of the other ambassadors, Dr. J’Tia Hart had to switch her plans after the onset of the pandemic. She had been planning a science fair for African American girls in the Chicago area, and in fact lost some of her deposits when she had to cancel. For awhile she put this aside while she dealt with family issues and of course, two kids in quarantine at home. After some time, she realized it would help her to focus on something else, and she started thinking about how she could “bring science and specifically Black women in STEM to these same communities. I started thinking about YouTube, and TikTok… and that’s how STEM Queens was born.”

Hart, who is now the chief science officer at Idaho National Laboratory, began with some market research into how to engage different audiences, including reading Nielson’s “The Digital Lives of Black Consumers” and resources from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which has been a partner with Lyda Hill Philanthropies on the IF/THEN® project. Hart sat in on some of the institute’s roundtables as well. “The researcher in me loved this stuff,” she says. She learned some important principles, particularly keeping it short and snappy. Hart herself also had some background in the entertainment business, at least with being onscreen, as she had previously been on the show Survivor.

“It was important to me to show that not only are these women in STEM, but they’re just like you,” says Hart. “I wanted to show young women that there is a viable career in STEM for them, and it might not be what you expect. This woman works in tech, but on weekends dresses up and plays Carnival..  My goal wasn’t to say, ‘Hey everyone, you should choose STEM,’ but to change the conversation so that you know that you can.”

STEM Queens currently includes eight episodes, each with Hart interviewing a Black woman in STEM. Hart includes multiple often-humorous mini-segments in each episode to keep things moving, and interjects quick visuals throughout. She shaped them by deciding ahead of time what her three main objectives were for the series, based on what she wanted her viewers to get out of it. She wanted to get to know the person with questions you might ask anyone; to share what they do in STEM; and to show their vibrant personalities. Hart says she loved talking to them. She noted that one person she interviewed loves plants, and so even though she can’t keep plants alive, “I was so inspired I went out and bought a cactus.”

Her web series had seven million impressions on social media, and she is looking for ways to continue it. “It was honestly cathartic during the pandemic to have something I could focus on and really pour in all the amazing things I knew about Black women in STEM and bring those together, because you don’t often see those melding,” says Hart.