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Meet Dr. Kaitlyn Webster: SCFG Mentor and Development Committee Member

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

Dr. Kaitlyn Webster has been a volunteer mentor scientist and a part of the Development Committee at Science Club for Girls (SCFG) for over a year now. In addition to guiding our young scientists during Clubs, she has contributed greatly to SCFG’s fundraising efforts and spreading the word about our mission. Dr. Webster’s fierce advocacy for getting youth immersed in STEM goes beyond her work at SCFG as she has volunteer experience at Skype A Scientist, Boston Area Girls STEM Collaborative Inc., and Mission Grammar School - Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Her considerable research experience includes time at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School's Genetics Department. She received her Bachelor's in Biology/Biological Sciences from Smith College and her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from UMass Boston.

We recently had the opportunity to ask Dr. Webster some questions about herself, her passion for SCFG, and her own life experience as a first-generation college graduate from a low-income family.

Tell us more about your educational background.

I went to Cambridge Rindge and Latin School for high school, where I took every opportunity to learn life sciences and biotechnology. My biology teacher – a woman who grew up in my neighborhood – urged me to sign up for a hands-on molecular biology summer course at the Biogen Community Lab (I believe we were the first ever cohort of students!), and that experience was really what I consider my “origin story." Before that time, I never would have imagined that I could grow up to be a scientist, but there I was – a couple blocks down the street from where I lived, getting to practice real biotechnology with my own two hands, meeting and connecting with real-life scientists.

It was revelatory for me to realize that even as a teenager, I could do this kind of science – I could learn and understand it, and I could make my bacteria glow by the end of the course! I learned that I didn’t have to be from a certain background, or be a genius, or be wealthy, all I needed was an opportunity to explore my passion for STEM.

I was encouraged by a high school counselor to apply to women’s colleges. I think the counselor recognized that I was in need of mentorship, positive role models, and a nurturing environment where I could come out of my shell and explore my potential. She herself had gone to a women’s college, and so had my AP Biology teacher, whom I idolized. It struck me that these women had a sense of responsibility to support the next generation of women, to pass on something that had helped them be successful, to lift as they climbed. I believe that mentality is shared among those of us who get to experience community, representation of ourselves in roles to which we aspire, and mentorship.

I went to Smith College, where I majored in Biology. Smith provided an eye-opening opportunity to learn and participate in science in an environment where all students were equal, where gender stereotypes were irrelevant. I needed this sense of community and the representation of powerful women in academia in order to find my voice and my path to becoming a researcher. I worked as a research assistant for 4 years before finally pursuing my dream of earning a PhD in molecular biology at UMass Boston.

We’d love to hear about your upbringing and how it impacted your trajectory into STEM.

I grew up in East Cambridge in a low-income family raised by a single mom with two kids. The expectation in my family was to find work or a trade to just make a living, and education was not a priority or goal. We were on Welfare and living in low-income housing, and I always felt like the thought of going to college or having a career was some kind of luxury for other kinds of people and not for us. I was always a bright and high-achieving student, but I was convinced that my fate was limited to what I saw people in my neighborhood and family doing – and they were working to survive, not studying or exploring.

For a long time, my upbringing made me feel othered and undeserving of the future I secretly aspired to. In college I became sharply aware of my class and status differences relative to other students, and I felt that I had to go above and beyond to earn my place. I knew college was a luxury and a privilege, and I was afraid of people discovering that I did not belong. I worked hard to seek research opportunities and work-study jobs in labs, and those efforts did set me apart when I graduated and looked for jobs. My mentality of needing to earn a living motivated my work for several years before going to graduate school, so that I could feel financially “safe." While there are shorter paths and easier ways to get through academia than the one available to me, I think it is important to share that it is possible even if you are not born into a rich family.

Wealth inequality is a barrier to diversity in STEM that is not discussed enough – it is understandably difficult to convince first-generation, low-income students, who are often financially responsible for their parents and siblings, to enter expensive higher-education programs.

Now that you are a successful woman in STEM, if you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?

When I was in college, I did not have the language or the security to identify myself as a first-generation student. I was terrified that people would find out I was poor, from a family of high-school dropouts, and that I had no idea what I was doing or how things in academia worked. I felt alienated and undeserving, and this caused me to aim low, and often resulted in figuring everything out the hard way. I now know that I was definitely not alone in these feelings, and if I had the skills and confidence to ask for help, to be vulnerable, I would have found community and support amongst others with similar struggles. I would tell myself that people would understand me and want to help me, if I was honest about struggles.

Tell us more about your time at SCFG. How has mentoring impacted your life? What drew you to being involved in the development committee?

Every level-up in my journey coincides with making a connection with a person who showed me what was possible and how to get there. I understand now that’s what a “mentor” is. Without female science teachers encouraging me, without the community lab giving me hands-on experience, without feeling a sense of belonging in STEM, I never would have arrived at becoming a scientist. I love being that supporter for other young people in SCFG – I know some of these students are just like me, and I hope they see it that way too.

The more we make science fun, community-based, free, and demystified, the easier it is for these students to see themselves as scientists. I want to show them how attainable their dreams are, but also, I just have a great time hanging out with them in Science Club!

How do you envision the future of STEM?

The landscape of academia and the job market in STEM is so different than when I was starting out. I am encouraged and optimistic that there are positive shifts, but there is much more work to keep our sights on. STEM and higher education are out of reach for many because of generational poverty, and I hope to see more initiatives to create pipelines between the myriad biotech companies and the members of this community entering the workforce after high school.

During your time at SCFG, what has been your biggest takeaway or most memorable moment?

Recently I met some club participants at the SCFG bag pick up day. I asked one of the girls what her favorite club activity was, and 5 minutes later she was still not done telling me all of them! At one point her brother interrupted to explain something about crystals, and she immediately corrected him and reclaimed her space. I absolutely love that SCFG made her so confident she could say, “Actually, I’m the expert and this is my thing!”

Dr. Webster, thank you so much for your service to SCFG and for being an incredible role model for us all!

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