When I was asked to write about my experience as a mentor scientist at Mother Caroline Academy I tried to summarize it in three words. But I couldn’t. I needed four. Those four words would be transformative, informative, motivational, and fun. When I set out to volunteer with this organization two years ago I had no idea how profoundly it would impact me as a woman and as a scientist.
In the competitive world of academic research it can be easy to forget the joy of the scientific process; the fierce inquiry and creative sleuthing that it takes to uncover a new, innovative, and impactful contribution to your field. As an environmental epidemiology graduate student focusing my efforts on drinking water contamination and birth defects my work is not always uplifting. Epidemiology is after all the study of diseases and epidemics, derived from Greek “that which falls upon the people.”
I found myself at Mother Caroline on Friday afternoons, a little tired from the week, and mentoring up to 15 fourth and fifth grade girls from school. I can honestly say that I have never left Science Club on Friday evening in a bad mood. Ever. You go in tired. You mentor 15 (highly energetic) little girls from school. You leave so happy. You leave transformed. You leave reinvigorated. Nothing reminds you why you wanted to become a scientist better than watching 15 fourth and fifth grade girls deciding why they too want to become a scientist. They love the hands on learning. They love testing their hypotheses. They love competing. They love asking the tough questions and then answering them on their own through experimenting and engineering their own solutions. They love learning new things about the world. These are the same things you loved at their age and the same things you get to do in your work everyday. It is easy to forget, bogged down by the minutiae of the every day, and this proposal and this presentation, and the deadline for your abstract, that what we are first and foremost is discoverers, explorers, detectives, and inventors. SCFG cultivates a symbiotic relationship between mentor scientists and our little fledgling scientists; while I’m trying to foster a passion for science in them they are reawakening a passion for science in me.
The most unexpected benefit of mentoring at MCA is how much it has informed my work. My research interests are in children’s environmental health issues and early life exposures and adult disease; the idea that some of the chronic disease burden we face in adulthood might be preprogrammed by the constellation of compounds we are exposed to during early development. Mother Caroline is in a community, like many other schools in the SCFG family, where the children are receiving a disproportionate amount of exposure to environmental pollution. Outside of the school diesel fueled buses are stopping every few minutes. You can see how badly the air is polluted by the amount of soot and dust the girls drag into the school from the playground and many, way too many, of the girls have asthma. I wish that our city could do better for them. I wish that the air around their school was cleaner. I wish that there were not so many inhalers in backpacks. These are the things I notice as a woman and a scientist. I don’t know if we will have cleaner fuels in those busses anytime soon. But I know that in the event that our generation does not fix this there are girls at Mother Caroline Academy who have lived in a community harmed by slow innovation for clean technology. And we are teaching them the tools and skills to some day be innovators and inventors who combine their firsthand experience with their knowledge to create a cleaner, healthier, and smarter world.
It is interesting working with fourth and fifth graders because it shows you how much difference one school year makes. I’ve also mentored some of my girls for two years now and you can observe how their attitudes change. By fifth grade I see the negative aspects of our culture creeping in to the classroom a little bit more. They are not as openly excited as they were a year before. They are more likely to hold back a little. We are here to counteract the negative messages that the girls might be getting from a society still battling widespread sexism, racism, and other injustices. We are here not just to promote the science but to cultivate a sense of confidence and sisterhood in the girls. This year I made it a rule in our laboratory that if you were a fifth grader you had to partner up with a fourth grader for your experiments. The fourth graders got a little help with math and writing down their observations and the fifth graders got a little help with letting their unapologetic excitement out!
Last but certainly not least my time at MCA has been so much fun. I have had the opportunity to work with the most wonderful kids and co-mentors. Facilitating the hands on experiments has been just as enjoyable for me as for the little scientists conducting them.
As a society we face numerous great obstacles. Many of these obstacles our little scientists are encountering every day. It will take science, engineering, and innovation to try to conquer these great obstacles. It will also take the work of confident, engaged, passionate women working together with equal representation to their male counterparts. It is an honor to be a tiny part of an organization that is working to foster a new tomorrow, a tomorrow full of young people with the confidence, science-literacy, and passion to confront these obstacles head on. “We are here today because science is fun. We are here today because science is for everyone.”
Lindsey Butler was a mentor-scientist with Science Club for Girls at Mother Caroline Academy from 2013-2014. She is a researcher at Boston University Superfund Research Program and a graduate student in Environmental Epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health. Her alma mater is Simmons College.