In February, I went to Boston to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). While many of the sessions were intriguing, at one point I found myself not considering the latest pedagogical approaches, newest enrollment management techniques, or common elements of facilities planning. I was not even thinking about the pyramids of snow impeding travel in the streets.
I was distracted, candidly, preoccupied by a distinctly personal memory — a recollection that Boston was where I gave my first research presentation at a scientific meeting. Boston is where I stood before a group of scientists as an undergraduate student and shared the results of a study that I had helped design and conduct. That vivid moment is when I identified publicly as a scientist.
How does one become a scientist? For me, as for many, it starts with a connection with a scientist who is a mentor. This happened during fall semester of my sophomore year at college when I took a course from Carolyn Rovee-Collier.
How does one become a scientist? For me, as for many, it starts with a connection with a scientist who is a mentor.
Carolyn was a dynamic lecturer. Striding back and forth on the stage in the large lecture hall, she was an enthusiastic and engaging teacher. My fellow students and I were captivated by her ability to make complicated, and often opaque, scientific theories clear. Carolyn was particularly adept at providing examples and illustrations that stripped away all of the bewildering formulas to capture the essence of the theory. I recall many a dinner in the dining hall discussing these examples further with my friends.
One Saturday morning that fall I went to a conference on women in science held on campus. I had initially hesitated to attend —I didn’t know anyone else going and I felt some trepidation about attending alone. I soon put these feelings aside as I realized that going to such a conference to learn more and meet those with similar interests was exactly what college was about. I found the courage and ventured off to the conference. I am forever thankful that I did because that day changed my life.
Carolyn was there and came up to speak to me. She had noticed that I was doing well in class and wondered if I would be interested in conducting research. I was thrilled at this opportunity and readily responded that I was eager to be involved in the research. I can still recall how I felt at the end of the day, walking back to my dorm room, my feet seemingly too light to even touch the ground.
I started doing research with Carolyn and her husband in the spring of my sophomore year and together they helped introduce me to the joy of scientific discovery. Conducting research is a core component in being a scientist, just like taking paint to canvas is to a painter or forming an image from clay is to a sculptor. I often discussed my work with Carolyn in her office or in her lab. Her motivation and enthusiasm for science was infectious. As a university professor, she advised a significant number of graduate students during her career, but one could argue that the mentoring of undergraduates was where she had the greatest impact.
Conducting research is a core component in being a scientist, just like taking paint to canvas is to a painter or forming an image from clay is to a sculptor.
What I didn’t know when I first conversed with Carolyn at the conference was that I had found a lifelong mentor. Fast forward 20 years, and I had become like Carolyn, mentoring more than 120 students over the years in my laboratory at Lafayette College, trying my best to help them discover the same joy that my first mentor showed me.
Mentors are important for all budding scientists. They have been found to be especially critical for girls and women pursuing science careers because there are, relatively, so few of us. Research has demonstrated that mentors serve not only as role models, but also help females learn the skills that enable them to mediate interactions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In addition, mentors provide access to programs and professional colleagues. At a STEM think tank – Sharing Solutions – on March 19-20 at The Agnes Irwin School, where I am Head of School, we discussed this critical component and other factors that help girls and women persist in STEM.
Carolyn, who passed away this fall, showed me the importance of mentorship—of treating students as inquisitive and insightful, of giving them broad opportunities to contribute to scientific work, and immersing them in the wonder and richness of science.
Dr. Wendy L. Hill, Head of School