Emory University biology professor Patricia Marsteller makes it clear to students of all ages that they can change the world at any time. And it doesn't have to be a big gesture.
From her lab at the Center for Science Education (CSE), she helps create hands-on research and curriculum for students and teachers at the pre-college, college and postgrad levels. With one local grant, for example, her team of science educators worked with high school students to make connections between science and the arts. Another school wanted to use science to learn more about homelessness in metropolitan Atlanta.
"The students actually went out and talked with homeless people under bridges, with help from grad students and teachers. But then they decided they wanted to do something about it. They used their science class to build little solar heaters for homeless people. So they could see right there where they could make a difference," she said.
Marsteller, a AAAS fellow, joined the Emory faculty in 1990 with a focus on bringing more women and minorities to biology and medicine. Today, her mission has broadened to improving science education by mentoring learners from "K through gray." And she says doing that well literally takes a "hands-on" approach.
One of her liveliest examples? On day one of the class Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Design Principles of Coffee and Beer, Emory students dissected the workings of coffeemakers rescued from yard sales.
"We had them take them apart, and try to explain how they worked," said Marsteller. "They were just astonished. None of them had ever done anything like that before. But it grabbed them."
She says students who are academic stars—but who have never taken apart a tractor, car or other machinery—may be missing the problem-solving experience that's crucial for developing a scientific mindset.
"They can learn facts and spit them back at you, but that is not what we want them to do. We want them to find new ways of doing things. The science changes all the time and they need to learn to investigate claims on their own," she said.
Marsteller grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, the oldest of 11 children. All those siblings and animals gave her plenty of chances for hands-on, unscripted learning.
Although she was first headed toward a career as a physician, her interest began shifting toward research and science education after a discouraging undergraduate experience. "I encountered some really bad teaching," she said.
Her search for her own scientific future became a wide one, ranging from clinical research in pediatric cardiology to analyzing cattle nutrition.
But it was volunteer work with alligators at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in South Carolina that intrigued her so much that it galvanized her scientific focus on research and teaching. She studied evolution of animal behavior and genetics for her graduate degrees, including the study of an alligator's ability to use celestial navigation.
"We kept finding that if you relocated an alligator, even hundreds of miles away, they would find their way back home. Well, how do they do that?" she said.
Her own captivation with reptile research early in her career inspires her to guide students to find their passion, even if it takes them in a whole new direction from where they started. She describes herself as a "change agent" and "transformer." As director of CSE, she helps undergraduates with that quest with a simple exercise.
"It's like a Venn diagram. There are three circles: What are you good at? What do you like to do? What will make a difference in the world?"
She says students who soar in the sciences often are channeled into medical careers, for financial security or to make their parents happy. She stresses that scientists in other specialties can make practical things happen through research.
One of her proud creations is the SURE program, the Summer Research Experience at Emory. Undergrads from Emory and other schools are paired with grad students for summer projects. Most go on to succeed in graduate programs.
While attracting women and underserved students has shown success, Marsteller says creating diversity among science faculties has been painfully slow and frustrating.
"People on the search committees write to their friends, and their friends all look like them," she said, adding that more of an effort needs to be made by major institutions to stay in touch with successful alumni with Ph.D.s and bring them back to join the faculty.
Marsteller is convinced that mentors are the key to success at every level of STEM education.
"There needs to be a kind of cascade of mentoring, from faculty to postdoc to undergrad to high school. And not just for research, but for professional development, for strategy in launching a career," she said.
Marsteller also helps her students bring scientific understanding to the public about some of today's critical issues, including climate change, population growth and sustainable energy. She encourages them to reach out in coffee shops, bars, or botanical gardens. She says podcasts, websites, and public talks have just "taken off" with popular support.
"I think we can engage people from all walks of life into thinking about these issues," she said.
Whether it is staring down a baby alligator, reimagining a coffeemaker, or embarking on a nontraditional scientific quest, Marsteller is a vocal advocate and example of the rewards of following the path that is most inspiring.
"Students need that nourishing and pushing a little bit," she said.