Supporting the NeXXt Generation
Professional role models help undergraduate women turn STEM aspirations into realities.
"I grew up in a rural area [of the U.S.] with the 'Fisher Price people' jobs around me—most people built things or worked on a farm and if you went to college you could be a teacher, nurse, dentist, or doctor," says Kristy Lamb, PhD, a Fellow in the NeXXt Scholars Program, through which she provides mentoring. The program is a joint effort between the New York Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of State, and a consortium of U.S. women's colleges that pairs professional women working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields with undergraduate women from the United States and countries with predominantly Muslim populations who are majoring in STEM subjects. (See sidebar below for more information.)
Now, thanks in part to the summer program that got her started on the path to a research career, Lamb is reaching out to the next generation of researchers through mentoring.
A Matter of Perspective
Fellows in the NeXXt Scholars Program interact with their assigned mentees on a regular basis. "We talk on the phone once a week and text at least every other day," says student Sami Cahill, who is effusive about her mentor's important role during her first year at Columbia College in South Carolina. "She gives me encouragement, but she also gives me the real-life perspective," she says. "She's really personally invested in me."
Rabeb Layouni, a student at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, also cites a strong personal connection with her mentor. "We talk every week for almost 2 hours, but it's not just me asking for help—she tells me what's going on her life too. She puts things in perspective in a way that my friends can't." Layouni, who is from Tunisia, got into medical school—a very typical career path for smart Tunisian students—in her home country, but she felt that being a medical doctor wasn't necessarily her calling. "My mentor really makes me feel there are more possibilities out there," says Layouni, who hopes to identify a career path that incorporates her love of problem-solving.
Mentors use a variety of techniques to show their STEM students what's possible. "Together we explore STEM career paths and gather information so she can make choices," says Dana Miloaga, PhD, R/D project engineer at PPG Industries, Inc. in Pennsylvania, of her mentee. Miloaga knows first-hand what a lack of choice feels like, having grown up in Romania where she didn't have access to the foreign language texts that she hoped to study. "I help my mentee identify persons to interview so that she can learn directly about their work and experience," she adds.
Connections Across Cultures
Fellow Majd Matta, a PhD candidate in astronomy at Boston University, grew up in the middle of civil war in Beirut and relished thinking about science as a child—a welcome mental escape from the hard realities of many days spent in bomb shelters. She has learned through the mentoring process "that some social and cultural challenges are timeless."
Matta's mentee, Layouni, has had to face the same issues upon coming to the U.S. as Matta did many years ago. Despite their different backgrounds, challenges such as coping with being far away from home and switching to a different verbal mode are common ground. "I must have lucked out to get such an admirable mentee," says Matta, who has been impressed by the grace with which Layouni has handled such obstacles.
Fellow Connie Jeffery signed up for the NeXXt Scholars Program thinking that she might be able to help bridge some of the cultural gaps an international NeXXt Scholar might face, having worked closely with many women from countries with predominantly Muslim populations throughout the course of her academic life as an associate professor of biological sciences at The University of Illinois at Chicago. But she has found the experience to be an excellent learning opportunity for her, too: "I've seen a lot in the news about [my mentee's] country [the Palestinian Territories], but it has been interesting to learn more about what it is like to live there," says Jeffery, who notes that she finds talks with her mentee an enjoyable way to fulfill her innate sense of volunteerism while creating lasting connections.
Lamb, like her fellow NeXXt Scholar mentors, has found that paying it forward has payoffs of its own: "There's something to sitting down and offering mentorship to someone younger ... that helps you consolidate your knowledge about your career and reflect on the journey you have taken," she says.
"Postdocs are often perceived to be in an odd limbo—part professional, part trainee—but I think participating in this program has helped me to better realize my professional self and to step away from thinking of myself as a trainee," says Lamb. Working with young people also injects a sense of excitement and enthusiasm into her professional work, Lamb says. "It's infectious."
Jeffery and Matta both noted that they find the expanded NeXXt Scholar network—from the other mentors and mentees to the program organizers at the Academy—to be invigorating. "I have gained both a friend and great peer network," says Matta.
A New Challenge
In April of this year, the NeXXt Scholars and their Fellows were invited to a special event at the United States Mission to the United Nations (USUN) in New York. At the event, the Scholars were able to practice their networking skills—honed through group activities at Barnard College and The Rockefeller University earlier in the day—with UN ambassadors and representatives from UN Women, the UN Secretariat, UNESCO, and other stakeholders interested in women and science.
Meghan Groome, PhD, executive director of Education and Public Programs at the Academy, gave a short talk, noting the overwhelming success of the inaugural cohort of the NeXXt Scholars Program, which is made possible by the generosity of the mentors who volunteer their time as well as the outstanding undergraduate Scholars. She also issued a challenge to the students, tasking them with finding ways to mentor others, whether elementary or high school students, their peers, or next year's incoming college first-years. Groome cited the importance of the Scholars in developing a continuous feedback loop in which mentees become mentors. "No matter what your age or experience, there's always someone you can mentor."
Diana Friedman is executive editor of The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine.
The NeXXt Scholars Program: How It Works
The New York Academy of Sciences, in partnership with the U.S. Department of State and a consortium of women's colleges, developed the NeXXt Scholars Program to support young women from countries with predominantly Muslim populations (International NeXXt Scholars) and college-appointed young American women (American NeXXt Scholars) as they pursue undergraduate degrees in STEM fields at U.S. women's colleges.
The Program was inspired by a young woman from Egypt named Wean, who was accepted into a Master's degree program in biological sciences at a U.S. women's college. Weam's father was initially resistant to the idea of allowing his daughter to live alone in a foreign country. But, two factors gave him the courage to break strong cultural norms and allow Weam to pursue the degree: his high regard for science and the higher education system in the U.S. and the environment offered by a women's college. These two aspects—science education and a women's college—provided the tipping point for Weam to seize an opportunity that changed her future. Weam's mother proudly attended her graduation and, since then, her family has even allowed Weam to return to the U.S. for the pursuit of a doctorate degree at a co-educational institution.
Inspired by Weam's experience, former U.S. State Department staffer Sandra Laney conceptualized the NeXXt Scholars Program to provide opportunities and support for women, 50% of the world's potential workforce, who she feels are critical to future innovations in STEM fields. The Program was officially launched by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in December 2011 and in fall 2012 the inaugural cohort of NeXXt Scholars began the Program.
All NeXXt Scholars are matched with women working in STEM professions (Fellows) who mentor the Scholars as they navigate their undergraduate careers, providing support regarding career paths and professional development. The Scholars have one-on-one relationships with their mentors, but are also linked to a wider network of STEM professionals through online resources and 5-year Academy memberships.
The first cohort of International NeXXt Scholars hail from Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey. They were nominated through the State Department's EducationUSA centers, which help promote cross-cultural understanding via academic exchange and study programs for international students. American NeXXt Scholars, accomplished young women who are selected by their colleges to partner with the International NeXXt Scholars, hail from across the United States.
NeXXt Scholars are currently attending Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Columbia College (SC), Douglass Residential College at Rutgers University, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Wellesley College, and Wilson College. Due to the success of the Program in its first year, a new class of Scholars and Fellows will be joining the program in the fall of 2013.
For more information on the NeXXt Scholars Program, visit www.nyas.org/NeXXtScholars.
A Mentor's Worth
According to the report Generation STEM, only 20% of STEM degrees are earned by women, despite the fact that women currently earn more than 50% of all college degrees.1
What would help to reduce this STEM gender gap? According to Meghan Groome, PhD, executive director of Education and Public Programs at the Academy, mentoring is a proven strategy to help STEM-interested women earn advanced degrees and pursue careers in these fields.
By increasing the number of women in STEM, not only do women benefit (STEM fields often offer higher wages and greater potential for job growth), but the world does too: "We need the talent and passion of women in STEM fields if we are going to solve many of our toughest global challenges," says Groome.
1. Generation STEM: What Girls Say About Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. A Report from the Girl Scouts Research Institute.