Mentoring young women into science

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I had a wonderful female mentor as a graduate student.  She gave me the confidence to pursue the crazy idea of this little ol’ Texan someday becoming a TT assistant professor, even when I wasn’t sure how I would ever secure and navigate a worthwhile postdoc or survive so far away from my family.  But her belief in me got me through, and I daresay I’ve done alright for myself.  Because of this mentorship, I’ve felt compelled to pay it forward.  As a postdoc, I’ve tried to mentor the younger female scientists in our department, especially those in my current mentor’s laboratory.  And I believe/hope this pursuit has had a positive effect.

Of course, these are women who have already taken the leap of faith to get into graduate school.  What about all those young women out there who are scared off by the idea of science, picturing icky men with crazy hair, walking around in grungy lab coats mumbling to themselves, no hope of a life outside the lab??  Many of us female scientists have blogged about this idea (most recently LabMom), but it seems so rare that we get to do more than just talk about the problem.  Well, fate has a way of getting you around to those unexpected teaching moments, and an opportunity recently came up to mentor a young female who hasn’t even begun to imagine herself on the science journey yet…

This past week, my high-school-aged niece came to work with me in the lab for a few days.  She’s incredibly smart and good at both science and math, but hasn’t been so sure of the whole college thing.  So it seemed like a good time to start instilling some ideas about future career paths in her head.  For my part, I mainly wanted her to get some exposure to bench work, the idea of something beyond high school, and real-life scientists.  (The one-on-one time with a busy teenager that Hubby and I hardly get to see was an added bonus!)  The best part – the lab I work in is currently composed of mostly young women who have interesting lives and personalities…seemingly the perfect place to get an intelligent young woman thinking about the idea of science as a career.  I also spent ample time during our commute talking about what my future as a TT prof might look like, as well as different paths my friends have pursued with their PhDs (government, industry, lawyers, writers,  and even a spelunker).

And I think my genius plan worked…

It wasn’t clear at first how the whole lab thing was coming across; my niece was a bit overwhelmed by her surroundings and understandably nervous at the bench. But, as the days wore on, she became a bit more comfortable in her shoes, eventually beginning to ask some questions and get into the idea that she was doing “real” work.  (“So, did I just, like, clone that gene?”) The best reward, though, came at the end of the week when I dropped her off at home for the last time. She said she had really enjoyed it, even if she was quiet a lot of the time…that she had just been nervous and was trying really hard to not make any mistakes (we had lots of discussions about how making mistakes was okay as a scientist…I do it all the time).  She added that she was now thinking about the college thing, possibly taking advantage of an athletic scholarship since she’s a kick-ass soccer player.  And she had even talked to her dad the night before about moving forward on thinking about college.  Score!! 🙂

We’ll see where this all goes…I’d love to think that I actually made a difference in a young to-be female scientist’s life.  Even if the whole experience leads her into a non-science but equally exciting direction, I’d be proud.  For now, I’ll just have to wait for what happens next.

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