Alumnae Stories: Daria Turner, Embracing a Growth Mindset

Daria Turner graduated from Vassar with a degree in neuroscience this past spring and is now doing research at Children’s Hospital. Rachel Horsting, a Boston area science writer with a special interest in science education, interviewed her this summer. Follow Rachel @racherin

Daria Turner’s journey through scientific education is a case study in the psychology of success. In the 21st century, many challenges women face in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) aren’t external or obvious, like those dominant in the past. They are hidden assumptions about how we learn and succeed. Daria overcame these pitfalls throughout her education by cultivating a mindset that emphasized effort and growth instead of inborn ability.

Daria at Latino STEM Alliance event

“Daria at an outreach event”

Slaying the Smart=Easy Dragon

One of the most poisonous assumptions in education today, especially for girls in STEM, is that learning is easy for smart people: being good at math and science means always knowing the answer and never being stuck. Many students, especially girls, internalize this assumption in elementary school. They like being “smart” when their subjects come naturally. But this mindset places academic confidence in a precarious position. A new level of conceptual difficulty that requires struggle can cause self-confidence to falter. Without mentors many girls begin to think, “This must not be for me. I must not really be smart.” So they move on.

Daria experienced this struggle, which is well documented by educational researchers and experienced teachers. In a quiet, reflective tone, she tells about a difficult high school chemistry class. It had all the problems that make students drop classes: a bum teacher, hard material, an undesirable grade. It was a point where many female students decide to walk away. Daria realized one day that with all the problems, she still liked chemistry, and that was fine. “I thought, ‘this is really weird,’” she said with a half laugh, “but things don’t have to be easy or fun for me to like it, or learn to like it.”

And so the demon of easy-means-you’re-smart was slain. Daria became an excellent chemistry student through hard work.

What Daria learned from being a mentor

Where did this inner intuition and confidence come from? It’s a question everyone who cares about STEM education for girls wants to answer. Against the flow of socialization and expectation, Daria dared to struggle towards success.

One contributing factor was her opportunity to mentor younger students in the Science Club for Girls. She explains that not all the girls came to Science Club with an overwhelming love of science.

“Some girls were quieter at first, it was nice to see those girls grow, talk more, give their input.” The lessons she did with elementary students emphasized hands-on exploration. “They learned the different parts of plants [in school], but never got to grow a plant themselves. It was really interacting with what they learned in the classroom. They liked bringing the extra knowledge back to the classroom and being the expert.” Watching younger students go from uncomfortable novice to vocal expert was a hands-on experience for her, one proving that success depends on effort.

Daria’s unique “natural” mentor

Her own unconventional mentor helped her as well. Daria is very close to her grandmother, who unabashedly pushed her into the sciences. She shared her fascination with the brain, and often said that in her next life she wanted to be a research scientist. Daria said, “She always talked about the brain, which really influenced me as I got older.” No one needed to give her grandmother permission to like science. She just liked it – a mindset she successfully passed on.

These early experiences prepared Daria well for college. Like so many hopeful scientists, she struggled at the start of Organic Chemistry. After her first few exams, she knew she “could have done better.” This led her to meet with the professor every week, to go over all the homework and every exam. Ultimately she understood the material and earned a high grade. She knew how to build the necessary relationships and work hard to advance from novice to expert.

Now newly graduated from Vassar with a degree in neuroscience, Daria is drawing on a network built from her volunteer and summer work at Massachusetts General Hospital, work that the Science Club for Girls originally helped her set up. She hopes to ultimately work in psychiatric research, and is particularly interested in psychological disorders. Her perseverance in the sciences shows the power of focusing on effort and growth during education, an attitude she now cultivates in the younger students she mentors.

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