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Kirthi Shanmugam: Helping to inspire the next generation of STEM

Published December 14, 2016

Kirthi Shanmugam: Helping to inspire the next generation of STEM

Kirthi Shanmugam has had a love for science her entire life. From watching plants grow in her parents’ garden in Southeast Pennsylvania as a child to eventually pursuing a STEM major in college, Shanmugam always knew she would be involved in a scientific field. Kirthi graduated from Tulane University in the May of 2016, where she was a double major in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Classics. During Kirthi’s time at Tulane, she developed a strong interest in ecological conservation. As an undergrad, she worked in Dr. Richards-Zawacki’s amphibian lab and the Tulane Herbarium. Kirthi also worked as a volunteer group leader for GIST (Girls in STEM at Tulane) where she worked with elementary and middle school girls to give them hands on experience with various scientific projects.

Most recently Kirthi has been working with Academy as part of the VISTA Program. We spoke about the VISTA program, science, and her future plans.

What is your relationship to science?

My earliest memory of science was in elementary school - third grade to be exact. My classmates and I were each responsible for another life. Our eight year-old-selves were mimicking Gregor Mendel in our pursuit of raising pea plants.  I had seen my parents’ garden.  And when I mean seen, I mean I see squash and tomatoes on our kitchen counter every other week or so. I thought this would be a piece of cake. At first, my pea kept up with the others’. Every day, I monitored the height of its little green stem and counted every bud.  At a point, my spirit grew competitive and I wanted it to be the tallest one in the class. I watered it more than my teacher had advised. Of course, my over-zealous self eventually drowned the plant before it ever had a chance. It took a little while to get over my disappointment but, I started gaining an interest in botany as well as the scientific process. After asking myself why my plant died, I became more methodical in my scientific pursuits and was able to eventually grow my own pea plant (and watermelon for that matter). At that point, I realized that the natural world is always consistent and accessible. While most of it remains a mystery, with a little effort and persistence, its secrets reveal themselves.

Tell us a bit about your experience with AmeriCorps VISTA program at the academy.

For the past four months, I have been working with the Academy’s Education department to support science outreach in underserved schools across New York City. I only realized in college how important it was to have mentors that both inspired and represented their students. I help maintain the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program, where I match a diverse group of college students in both discipline and background to serve as mentors for middle-schoolers. I also help run Family Science Nights where parents, students, and teachers participate in quick fun experiments. In the upcoming months, I hope to bring more science opportunities related to ecology to students and encourage enthusiasm for the environment.

How did mentors and people around you shape your interest in science?

I had limited exposure to the science of ecology while growing up. So, majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology for my undergraduate degree was both explorative and rewarding. I was extremely fortunate to be in a department that was home to many successful female scientists, both in academia and research. I personally would not have discovered a interest for birding or conservation of amphibians if I had not worked with mentors that were both accessible to me and sincerely dedicated to their work. As I had not seen many South Asian women in my undergraduate field of study, I hope to serve as a model for young women by answering global environmental challenges in the future.

What’s next for you?

My eventual goal is to go into environmental policy and international development. I specifically want to focus on developing countries, where I believe that economic growth and preservation of natural resources can go hand-in-hand. I would like to focus my efforts on increasing education on sustainability to motivate people to protect our beautiful Earth.