I’m a scientist, so I’m sensitive about my data: The creativity within STEM

neuron_by_mental_traffic

“The Neuron”.  Artwork by Mental Traffic

Written By Dr. Erika E. Alexander

Sometimes I think about the moment I decided studying science was for me. I was a freshman in college. It wasn’t because I particularly liked math or analyzing data, or being cooped up in a science lab all day/night (because that’s what scientists were to me, then). At the time I was a Psychology major, because I had done well in high school classes and found it mildly interesting. I was in the honors program, and most of my friends just so happened to be high-achieving Biology majors. They were already taking major classes, including BIO 101. One day, in between doing my homework, I was flipping through my friend’s textbook. I became amazed at what I was reading. The images I saw of life and all of its creatures, the complex problems, and elegant solutions inspired in me such a sense of wonder. I wanted more. I wanted to create. So I began down a path which has led me, ironically, in a full circle (more on that in another post).

As I continued my pursuit of scientific exploration in graduate school, I became aware of certain patterns (and I’ve always loved patterns) in the people around me. I found that many of my brilliant researcher friends also had creative side. I know people who have published in Nature and PNAS, who take photos that would make you weep. I’ve been to physics conferences where one of the featured events was a musical jam session by my fellow scientists. I know a brilliant computer programmer that plays a mean trumpet. I’ve attended art shows with works showcasing brilliantly colorful confocal imaging of cells and cellular organization, close up images of spider eyes and bird wings, and hand drawn illustrations of a neuron.

I also love to create beautiful things. From coasters/home scents, to all natural beauty products, to cooking and baking for loved ones, to imaging hair cells on the confocal. If I am creating, I’m happy. I’ve always been inspired by images, and photography is also a secret love of mine, one that I hope to learn more about in the near future. I find many things in the world inspiring, including my science and the images it produces. I suspect many of my friends feel the same way. I have friends who are talented dancers, sculptors and interior designers, who put on a lab coat and gloves at work everyday. My friends paint, sing, write poetry and blogs, and can tell you exactly what elements and compounds are contained within a sample just by looking at spikes on a computer screen.  They can record individual neurons as they communicate with other cells, and grow plants that glow in the dark. Artists.

I say all of this, because I wonder if this pattern of great science and great creativity is connected. Nathan Alexander talked about the policy push towards adding an A for Art into the STEM acronym (to create STEAM) to appeal to a more diverse group of students. Separation of science and art is taught to us early. When I was in elementary school, the same teacher who taught us History, English, and Math, also taught Science in the same room. Meanwhile, an entirely different teacher taught Art in a different classroom, in a different part of the building. There were no connections to STEM subjects, or suggestions that a career in art is something that those who like science should pursue.

Society views artists as free, wild, and complicated, while scientists are analytical, data-driven, and socially awkward. Artists create art and poetry and scientists use lasers and build killer robots. At first glance, they could not be farther apart on the spectrum of humanity. But, then why are so many creatives drawn towards STEM careers? Is it just that scientific research is so stressful, with all of it’s pitfalls, politics, and potential failures, that a creative outlet is a distraction required to survive?

Or, is science in its essential form creativity? Does it not require skill and a sometimes slavish dedication to craft? Can creative inspiration by other artists or muses be likened to the genesis of new experimental ideas and paradigms after talking with fellow scientists about their research? Does attention to detail and seemingly unrelated factors play an important role in both the evolution of art and science? Are a sculptor and an engineer simply creating different pieces of art? Can there be true artistic beauty in a high-resolution image of the cellular organization of auditory sensory cells?

I got into science because I saw it as a creative endeavor, a chance to carve out my path and to use my skills to create new understanding of the world around me. In my mind, art, is a way of communicating about life, sharing with the world all of its wonders and it’s dark, scary places. To me, the two subjects aren’t so very different. So maybe it’s time for a more nuanced view of both professions. Maybe art and science can share the same room after all.

What do you think? Are there better ways to incorporate science into art classes and vice versa?  Should artistic ability be encouraged/developed in the budding scientist?

Will actions speak louder than words in the ongoing STEM discussion?

Written by Dr. Stacy-Ann Allen Ramdial

Over the last 10 years the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) has become a buzzword in many circles. Is it possible that like many pop culture expressions,  the clever acronym-word duality that is “STEM” will fade into obscurity once its use (or misuse) has been exhausted?

STEM means different things to different audiences with varying degrees of overlap in meaning. For some it excludes any reference to medical professions; for others, it is an all-encompassing term to mean anything remotely related to science. The acronym was first introduced by Judith Ramaley, the director at the National Science foundation, in 2001 for policy making purposes [1]. Since then the term has become the go to buzzword for policymakers, academics, and the public regardless of whether its use is appropriately employed.

I’ve written, debated, read, and listened to the merits of a STEM educated workforce. But as we look towards the 15 year anniversary of the terms coinage, I sometimes wonder if anything profoundly meaningful will come from the conversation.

Don’t get me wrong, a productive conversation is one worth having; however one must ask at some point: has this STEM conversation really been productive considering how much of it has translated into meaningful action? Have we gotten so complacent with the use of the term that we simply employ its use as a policy filibuster or has the definition of STEM become so “muddled” that many of the key stakeholders are frequently and unintentionally talking past each other?

Today more than ever, as we react to the effects of globalization and rapid technological advances, we embrace the idea that without a sustained STEM educated workforce, the U.S. will fall behind as a global leader. This has been highlighted in President Obama’s past and most recent State of the Union address where he has stressed the importance of both preparing students to succeed in the global economy, and supporting a STEM workforce to optimize economic growth.

If this is our commitment, then how many more articles have to be written, debates had, speeches made, and conferences held about the leaky STEM pipeline, the unprepared STEM workforce, the failure to capitalize on the investments made in domestic STEM graduates, the racial/ gender disparities in the STEM workforce, and the wage gap in STEM fields, before we make measurable headway. I could list more of the STEM issues tackled on a daily basis by policymakers, academics and the public, but I won’t belabor the point in this piece as a simple web search will provide a comprehensive background and update on the discussion. However, as a contributor and a benefactor of the ongoing STEM discussion, I have to ask: will STEM lose its conversational prominence and if so will it be due to passivity, pandering, or progress?

1. Donahoe, D. The definition of STEM, Today’s Engineer, December 2013

When Life Gives You Lemons, Build a Lemonade Factory

Written By Dr. Monica F. Cox

Turn on the television, read social media posts, or talk to almost anyone affiliated with a technical field in the United States. Front and center is bleak news about the state of minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. From a recent American Institutes for Research report (Turk-Bicakci, Berger, & Haxton, 2014) that notes that underrepresented minorities with STEM Ph.D.s are more likely to work outside of STEM than their majority counterparts to University of Florida Ph.D. students’ Corey Baker and Justin Dunnavant’s post about the disparaging percentages of Blacks in the field of engineering versus Blacks in companies such as Apple and Google, messages remain the same. The number of minorities in STEM is low in undergraduate education, in graduate education, in the academy, and in the workforce. Despite best efforts by policy bodies and other organizations to address these challenges, concrete solutions to reconcile these disparities remain pervasive across sectors.

Qualitative explorations about the state of people of color in STEM present similar, discouraging perspectives about the day-to-day interactions and experiences of people of color in the STEM workforce. From Dr. Carlotta’s Berry’s November 2014 New York Times post about being an African-American engineering professor at a small institution in the Midwest to my January 2014 Diverse Issues piece about how I was prepared to conduct the work of a professor but wasn’t ready for the challenges that I would face as an African-American female engineering professor, numerous stories highlight environments where STEM professionals’ credentials are questioned and where these highly educated individuals are disrespected in ways that are startling to most people who are non-minority or do not work in STEM careers.

After almost nine years of working in an environment where I was the first and the only of my “kind”, I decided that it was time to take a break, or a sabbatical, from my institution. Offered to many faculty after at least seven years of continual employment at an institution, sabbaticals are designed to present faculty with opportunities to rejuvenate their minds and bodies; to innovate via their research, teaching, and service interests; and to prepare strategically for the next phases of their careers. Little did I know that my sabbatical would change and save my life.

My primary sabbatical theme focused on entrepreneurship. Although I initially explored the expansion of an educational assessment tool to enhance teaching and pedagogical (teaching) feedback in STEM classrooms, I was drawn repeatedly to entrepreneurial activities related to the experiences of underrepresented groups in STEM. The more I reflected on my experiences as a woman of color in engineering, the more I realized that I wanted to create materials and products that empowered underrepresented groups who wanted to succeed in a variety of STEM environments. I was particularly interested in reaching those who would be the first or the only one in their professional environments.

Hence, “Prepared to Be a Pioneer”™ (website coming soon at www.preparedtobeapioneer.com ) was born. Instead of waiting for someone to rescue me from the perils of isolation within the Academy, I am creating an entrepreneurial professional development brand focused on people who are Pioneers (vision creators), Propellers (vision implementers), Prisms (vision reframers), and Pillars (vision sustainers). Among my services will include coaching and consulting along with a professional compatibility service inspired by a friend and colleague who is a matchmaker.

During my six month sabbatical, I have often reflected on my transition to entrepreneurship. Below are some thoughts that might guide others who, like me, are unique in their environments and wish to turn everyday problems into solutions that provide financial security and assistance to others who seek remedies to a variety of problems.

  • Identify your pain point. This is the thing that keeps you awake at night. It is the problem that nags you during meetings. Often, you are the most likely champion for solving this problem, because the problem is personal to you.

ACTION ITEM: Make a list of problems or situations that confront you most often. These could be technical or personal problems. Identify why they are problems to you, and write what your ideal solutions to the problem would be.

  • Find the thought leaders and other people who are as passionate about your problem as you are. Most STEM professionals expand their networks at conferences or professional meetings. Traveling to conferences can be expensive, however. In the age of social media, finding potential collaborators or partners is only a click away. Subscribe and listen to relevant podcasts on iTunes or read blogs in your emerging areas of interest. Believe it or not, many people outside of STEM fields have great advice about ways to implement entrepreneurial ideas practically in a noisy entrepreneurial world. Begin reading publications and posts by the Harvard Business Review, Fast Inc., Forbes, Black Enterprise, or Entrepreneur. Getting out of your comfort zone is a giant step in a potential launch for a new business.

ACTION ITEM: Using your social networks (e.g., LinkedIn or Twitter), find at least 5 to 10 new professionals with whom to connect. Once you connect, send an email or message informing that person why you would like to connect with him or her. Follow-up with these individuals periodically as you develop your entrepreneurial strategy.

  • Develop a community of people who encourage you. These “Bad Day Buddies” are people who you can call or text when you have questions or reach rough spots in your business. The life of an entrepreneur can be lonely and sometimes scary, and creating this support network is vital for success. “Bad Day Buddies” are the people who will see your real personality and will have permission to provide critical feedback to you about your entrepreneurial journey. The key to success in “Bad Day Buddy” relationships is reciprocity. In the same way that you expect these individuals to be available to you, you need to be available to them when they need your support. Be open with them about what this looks like in your life.

ACTION ITEM: Similar to creating a new professional network, identify up to 3 people with whom you are compatible and who understand you on a more personal level. Explicitly describe what you expect from your “Bad Day Buddy” entrepreneurial relationship, and negotiate areas where you are willing to provide entrepreneurial support.

  • Success does not happen overnight. I wanted to have 50,000 Twitter followers, media appearances, and credibility in my new area in a matter of months after being an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, in the same way that I had to develop my STEM research and professional portfolio, I must develop my entrepreneurial brand. For this reason, I have learned about the importance of creating quality content, building an audience, and monetizing my services appropriately. More than that, I realize that my entrepreneurial dream requires that I work my academic job and spend my “spare” time working my entrepreneurial job with no guarantee that my efforts will manifest in the ways that I would like for them to manifest. To become an entrepreneur, areas of your life must change. Whether you hire employees or delegate current tasks to others, you have to shift priorities to launch your entrepreneurial venture. In the same way that everyone doesn’t pursue a Ph.D., everyone doesn’t succeed as an entrepreneur. Both efforts take work and commitment but can pay big dividends if you are persistent.

ACTION ITEM: Revisit your priorities. Of the roles that you currently play, which are necessary and which are not? Deliberately add or eliminate activities that do not align with your entrepreneurial dreams. Do not allow, however, your overall well-being (e.g., healthy eating, exercise) to suffer with these shifting priorities.

In conclusion, although I am not yet ready to leave my full-time academic position, I have become intrigued by the freedom and innovation associated with entrepreneurship. Instead of feeling that I am a victim in a system where I am one of the few or am the only one, I have found entrepreneurship to provide me with a way to translate the limitations that I see as a woman of color in STEM into infinite possibilities. Unlike a tenure-track position where I am overly cautious of how my actions are perceived by others, entrepreneurship places the onus on me. In the words of Henley’s “Invictus,” I am the master of my fate, and I am the captain of my soul. Lemonade, anyone?

 

Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number: Should the NIH impose an average age for grants?

Written By Dr. Chloe N. Poston

Close your eyes and think of a scientist. What does this person look like? Is this person a man or a woman? Young or old? Stylish or disheveled? I’m willing to bet what you saw in your mind (especially if you don’t know any scientists personally) is something closer to a photo of Albert Einstein or some version of the characters on Big Bang Theory. Rarely do we imagine the stages between a student and full-fledged scientist. However, this “in-between” time often defines people’s scientific trajectories; decisions in this phase can be career making or breaking.

Here’s what it looks like. The classic career path in science starts with an undergraduate degree, followed usually by a masters and then a doctoral degree. After the doctoral degree comes a “post-doc” or post-doctoral position where you train with a more senior scientist in your field to become an independent researcher. In other professions, the equivalent of a post-doc is an actual entry-level position with retirement benefits that counts towards professional experiences. Unfortunately, the post-doc is more like an extension of graduate school, where the pay is meager and the label of “trainee” leads employers outside of academia to ignore these years as “experience”.

You might wonder how long this takes. Let’s do the math. If a budding scientist starts college at age 18, completes a BS in 4 years, finishes a Masters and PhD in 6 years, and trains as a postdoc for 2-3 years, then that individual is ready to start on an independent path at the age of 31 in the most ideal of situations. This means today’s “early career” scientists are 33 years old before they begin to look for work as independent scientists. There are data to support this informal calculation: the Survey of Earned Doctorates shows that in the fields of biomedical sciences and chemistry people are not actually getting their first job after a post-doc until the age of 35.

It is at this point that early career scientists on the tenure track begin to apply for R01 grants from the NIH. For my non-scientist readers, an R01 grant provides an average of $400,000 for a research project that is in line with the priorities of the National Institute of Health. These grants finance the academic biomedical research enterprise and are an important step for new professors to establish themselves with solid research and publications, which are often the measure of scientific productivity. Many universities require that new professors secure an R01 grant within the first five years of being hired to remain on the tenure track.

Of course young scientists are not the only people vying for this funding; the competition is fierce and spans from early career to well established scientists. The average age of R01 recipients has steadily increased. In 1998, PhDs were awarded their first R01 at the age of 36; in 2014 that age is 42. These stats have sparked much debate. Maryland Rep. Andy Harris thinks that the age distribution of awarded grants should be mandated. And others have differing opinions. Some think this is a function of too many postdocs with few realistic employment prospects in academia.

However, there are several other reasons that the average age of R01 recipients is in the 40’s and not the 30’s: 1) if students and post-docs are recognizing that academic prospects are slim, perhaps they are exploring other options that are related to science, but don’t require bench work; 2) perhaps post-docs and younger independent researchers are taking advantage of pathway to independence mechanisms like K99-R00, which provides NIH funding to bridge post-doctoral training and the process of starting a new laboratory; and 3) young post-docs may not be adequately trained to prepare competitive grant proposals to vie for an ever shrinking budget.

Young scientists are facing more difficult grant reviews than their advisers faced at the same point in their career as a function of less money. They are keenly aware of the small number of tenure track academic positions available. They are intelligently weighing their options. Some will work through this difficult era in the academic sector, and they will be awarded R01 grants. Others will begin to explore other career paths like industry, science writing, policy, higher education administration, grant administration, and some may leave scientific research fields all together. None of these people will apply for R01 grants.

Perhaps this is the source of the skewed age. More people are realizing that they can leverage scientific skills in other fields and find success. The age-old scientific career path that leads straight to the professoriate can no longer accommodate all who embark upon it. Young people, who are still training to be scientists are accepting that fact and making other plans.

Trends at the NIH and elsewhere should and do reflect that. So while the stats are interesting, it’s safe to say that age is pretty poor metric to use for programmatic recommendations.

What do you think? Share your comments below.

 

 

 

From STEM to STEAM: Diversity and the integration of the Arts into STEM

STEAMlogo1

By: Nathan N. Alexander

Historically, STEM has been used in the United States as an acronym to situate and link the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In original form, the term was generated as a means to situate education policies and as a tool for curricular innovation and national competitiveness, among other items. Similar terms, such as MINT, which stands for ‘Mathematics, Information Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Technology’, have not experienced the success, in terms of usage, of the STEM acronym and thus are not commonplace in discussions on education. More recently, however, the term STEAM has become more readily apparent in education policy literature. In general, STEAM seeks to transform education policy and encourage the integration of the arts and design into K-20 education, primarily as a means to drive innovation. The STEAM movement seeks to broaden the conception of the STEM fields, which have been traditionally situated as hard and unreachable subjects for some youth. One implication of this movement is an assured increase in situating diversity in the now STEM fields, but only in instances where integration and implementation are well thought out in advance.

The public education agenda in the United States has positioned STEM as a centerpiece in debates about important and requisite skills for national competitiveness. More broadly, institutions such as the National Science Foundation have presented guidelines on what constitutes as STEM field, which have contributed to more discipline specific ways of thinking and less multidisciplinary and integrative frames. As a result, and in K-12 education, these guidelines have been situated, separated, and couched in terms like college readiness and 21st century learning that lacks a holistic perspective on student learning. For example, in American society one is thought of as an “arts” person or a “science” person; it is rare that these two exists or are fully embraced all at once. Much of this way of thinking is the result of a political ideology and government agenda set to maintain competitiveness versus generate a healthy and holistically educated youth. It is no surprise, then, that historically STEM has its roots in debates about the number of qualified candidates for high-tech jobs. Less surprising is that these debates existed with a specific regard to immigration. Namely, the question, “How do we get the best workers here in the U.S?” In light of the fight for national competitiveness, a focus on specific communities and subsequent issues of diversity in STEM increased.

Low expectations and high barriers for STEM have historically made entry into these fields difficult, especially for marginalized and underrepresented students of color, as Dr. Chloe Poston has previously discussed. In K-12 education, STEAM has been situated more broadly as a framework for education, as opposed to a curriculum or curricular tool. Georgette Yakman, one founder in the STEAM Education movement describes the framework as one that allows representation of the whole world. Previous posts here at The Poston Collective have discussed the need for more integration across disciplines. For example, Dr. Stacy-Ann Allen Ramdial noted how STEM and Social Science go Hand in Hand. Elsewhere, significant debates exist around the emphasis on STEM. The majority of these debates focus on whether STEM has provided proper and substantive content to teaching and learning in K-20 contexts. Beyond how it is written, additional debates arose from how STEM is interpreted. Further questions about rigidity and inclusiveness continue.

Is STEAM one potential puzzle piece to reducing persistent issues of diversity?

In my opinion, good teaching already accounts for STEAM. However, the STEAM community formalizes the process and takes on Science and Technology by interpreting Engineering through the usage of the Arts, which are all based in Mathematics. I use this post as a call to urge us all to better understand the STEAM movement in detail and to identify the nuances that will be presented in the months and years to come. While innovation and growth of this sort provide fair opportunity to engage new ways of doing, it is too often that new issues of diversity and access follow. STEAM will only provide the contexts to “paint” a new picture of diversity given well-planned and situated integration that will include all students and not only those with access to, for example, more information and resources. Further, unlike its STEM counterpart, this new movement should not be focused solely on increasing national competitiveness but instead as one potential way to increase diversity and justice for communities that have been traditionally left out of the STEM fields.

Full STEAM ahead!

How I’m Building My Tech Startup

Written by Chanel Martin 

A black woman in a tech start-up in the South, sounds like an oxymoron right? But it’s true. My name is Chanel Martin, and I am Co-founder and COO (Chief Operating Officer) of Techturized. Techturized was the brainchild of co-founder Candace Mitchell, CEO, and myself. We met at Georgia Institute of Technology in 2008. Mitchell was studying computer science, and I was in a dual degree program with Clark Atlanta University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.

Techturized is a hair care technology company that creates innovative solutions to transform the hair industry. We launched our first product, Myavana, December 2013. Myavana is a mobile and social style platform, where women can search for hairstyles, products, and stylists in their area. Myavana will offer hair personalization plans Fall/Winter 2014. These personalized plans will recommend hairstyles, products, and services based on a woman’s unique hair type.

On how we got started

Candace and I had issues with finding the right styles and products for our hair. One day, I was searching for natural hair wedding styles for my upcoming wedding. I searched everywhere, including blogs, websites, and YouTube videos and was overwhelmed. I didn’t understand why the information was so fragmented and unhelpful. I decided to do something about it! What better person to tackle this issue than a Chemical Engineer?  I reached out to Candace Mitchell to help with the tech side and the rest was history.

On getting funding

We applied to an accelerator program, Flashpoint, based out of Georgia Tech in 2012. They provided $35K in funding, an office space, and seasoned mentors. We were accepted and began immediately working on our company. Flashpoint was instrumental to the success of our brand and our company. During Flashpoint, we interviewed over 1000 women to help build our first product, Myavana. We also learned how to pitch to investors, and to hustle!

After Flashpoint, we asked friends and family to invest in our company and raised $40K. We then caught the eye of some local angel investors and raised an additional $25K. Next, we participated in a crowdfunding campaign through indeigogo and raised another $25K. Our biggest funding cash cow comes from pitch competitions. To date, we have raised $85K, and over $200K in products and services from entering and winning pitch competitions. We are currently in the processes of raising $500K to carry out the next phases of our business.

On our challenges

We have faced so many challenges, but each one has helped us grow as a company, and as a team. Raising money as a minority owned company in the south, that provides/sells products and services to women of color has been a huge hurdle. People invest in people, ideas, and businesses that they are comfortable with. That means, that the old white guy probably doesn’t understand us, or our business model. For that reason, we have spent lots of money, time, and energy educating white men and women on the black consumer market. When we explain that black women drive 33 % of the 10 billion dollar US hair product industry, but are only 6% of the population, they start to “kind of” get it.

We also had to overcome our underlying  issues about being black women who are asking a southern white men for money.

On why are we doing this

If it were only about the “potential money” that we would make, then we would have quit a long time ago. This path has been an exciting, yet a stressful whirlwind of events. There have been many times along this 2-year journey where I wanted to quit. I wanted to go back to being a chemical engineer in a traditional 9-5 setting, but we both realized that we are on an assignment from God. We are trailblazers, who are paving the path for other women to use their STEM backgrounds to create multi-million, even billion-dollar companies. We are a reminder to the human race, that with perseverance, trust in God, and family support, you can achieve anything no matter your socioeconomic status or skin color.

On Advice to other entrepreneurs

Candace and I work on this full-time. In addition to full-time work with Techturized, I am a wife and a mother to a newborn baby girl. It’s a tough road to follow, and you need a support system to get through each day. Before walking away from that 9-5, identify your support system that will encourage you and keep you lifted in prayer and daily affirmation’s. Understand that the road less traveled is very tough. You may get hundreds of “no’s” before you get your first “yes”. If you truly believe in what you are doing, keep at it.

What’s Next

We were just accepted in to another business accelerator program, DreamIt Ventures for the fall cohort. We are also partnering with Spelman College in Atlanta to create a pipeline for women in STEM. To keep up with Techturized and Myavana, visit Myavana.com/media. Myavana is available for download in the Apple App and Google Play stores. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @MyavanaHair.

 

Chanel Martin is Chemical Engineer from Oklahoma City. She not only excelled in her studies, which led to her receiving her Master of Science in Chemical Engineering, but she also possesses a passion for entertainment, beauty and all things hair. Follow her @chanelebone on Twitter and Instagram.