I'm Showing My Students a Scientist Doesn't Have to Be a White Guy in a Lab Coat

Jan 31, 2019 12:00:00 AM


When I was a young girl, everyone in my life told me I should be a lawyer, because I challenged their statements, asked clarifying questions and debated their claims. Perhaps surprisingly, I now pursue a career in scientific research for those very same reasons: To challenge statements, ask questions and debate claims. Pursuing a career in cellular biology hasn’t been easy. The road has been full of challenges, from working multiple jobs to pay for my undergraduate education at San Francisco State University, to finding funding opportunities in order to conduct my research. Supportive people, especially mentors, have eased and helped my journey in science. I have been fortunate to meet incredible mentors who have not only offered me their time and patience, but have given me the confidence to pursue science and become a scientist. Thanks in part to their support, in just a few months I will complete my master’s in a program focused on stem cell research. Thanks to their immense impact, [pullquote position="right"]I strive to be a mentor for others just starting the journey.[/pullquote] I have fulfilled my desire to give back as a mentor by connecting with San Francisco State’s chapter of SACNAS (the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Latinos and Native Americans in Science). SACNAS is a nationally-recognized organization that promotes the inclusion and advancement of minorities in science and STEM careers. Our SACNAS chapter strives to create an inclusive, welcoming environment for undergraduates pursuing science, while also reaching out to the youth of our community. We host lab tours for K-12 schools throughout the Bay Area, including science demonstrations to give them insight into our work. At the beginning of every tour, we ask the students what they think a scientist looks like. Every time, they tell us the same thing: an older Caucasian male in a lab coat. Through the tours, we strive to reshape their idea of who a scientist is by meeting us and seeing our own research. After seeing chicken embryos in our developmental labs, petting tobacco hornworms in our physiology labs and discovering a “practical” use of liquid nitrogen by watching us flash-freeze Oreos, the high schoolers fell in love with science in a new way. The students were impressed and became infatuated with science because we—the scientists doing the research and leading the demonstrations—looked like them.

It’s Truly Inspiring to Be both a Mentee and a Mentor

Beyond our lab tours, our SACNAS chapter had the privilege of connecting with the Carver Scholars, a group of young people from San Francisco’s Bayview District, thanks to our advisor, Dr. Blake Riggs. We held monthly Saturday sessions exposing them to a range of sub-disciplines within the field of biology. We started with basics like our Scale and Size Day, when the scholars explored the sizes of different organisms. On our Microbiology Day, we enlisted the help of Dr. Brinda Govindan to help our scholars see some of the diverse organisms not visible to the naked eye. [pullquote]The scholars sampled the environment, grew microorganisms on agar plates and developed a new appreciation for proper handwashing techniques![/pullquote] In addition to the Saturday exposure sessions, the Carver Scholars conducted their own research projects over the course of the year, and our SACNAS chapter was proud to support a Poster Day where they could showcase their work. They were ecstatic about communicating their science with us via posters on topics ranging from “How to Make Slime” to the effectiveness of stress balls to electrostatic conductions. It’s truly inspiring to be both a mentee and a mentor. There’s nothing like the process of growing into the best version of yourself thanks to a mentor’s guidance, then watching someone else become their best self thanks to your support. It’s those experiences and the positive feelings they create that keep me striving to be better.
Photo courtesy of Miriam Beatriz Valenzuela.

Miriam Beatriz Valenzuela

Miriam Beatriz Valenzuela is a California Institute for Regenerative Medicine fellow and second year graduate student at San Francisco State University in the cell/molecular biology masters with emphasis in stem cell science. She is currently conducting her research at the University of California-San Francisco in the Tippi MacKenzie Lab and look forward to pursuing a doctorate degree while still being involved in the community and promoting science communication.

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