While learning skills to advance their own careers, graduate student organization Women in Science (WIS) at VCU is paying it forward. Its members are guiding the next generation of students toward vocations in healthcare professions, biomedical research, engineering and other sciences.
For the ninth year, the group hosted its Girl Scout Medical Sciences Career Day in April, offering middle school girls the opportunity for hands-on learning and mentoring by graduate students who were in their shoes just a few years before.
Girl Scouts prepare to dissect the brain of a mouse and identify different regions of the brain using color-coded maps. Photography by Elizabeth Do.
The day’s organizers say the reward of seeing young students exploring science was almost rivaled by the announcement that WIS won VCU’s Community Service Project Leadership and Service Award for the career day project. This is the second time WIS received the award; the first was in 2013.
The ambitious project brings about 100 Girl Scouts and 40 adult chaperones to the MCV Campus for a day of science modules created to introduce the visitors to various aspects of scientific career options. “We do clinical lab sciences, pathology, forensic science, human genetics, pharmacy, nursing, engineering … and more,” said Elizabeth Do, MPH’12, a Ph.D. student in psychiatric and behavioral genetics and the outgoing president of WIS. “From the feedback we got, the girls especially like the hands-on activities.”
One favorite was learning to extract DNA from a strawberry. Rita Shiang, Ph.D., associate professor of human and molecular genetics, organized the activity and got to see students marvel at the white cloud of DNA rising from the liquid extracted from a crushed berry in the bottom of the test tube. “It is a really neat thing,” said Shiang who is a faculty advisor for WIS.
The day’s activities made a big impression. “It’s a hands-on experience that girls my age wouldn’t normally have. I loved being in a lab using test tubes,” said Hannah, a middle-school Girl Scout from Spotsylvania who participated in the career day activities.
School of Pharmacy student Brittany Speed instructs one of the Girl Scouts on how to prepare an ibuprofen gel. Photography by Rita Shiang, Ph.D.
Jamie Sturgill, Cert’05, PhD’12 (MICR), introduced the idea of the career event when she was a member of the newly formed WIS in 2006. “As a Girl Scout myself, I can remember doing activities, hands on things at a program at Marshall University in West Virginia. I started to reach out to Girl Scouts here and started laying groundwork.” Sturgill is now an assistant professor and director of Biobehavioral Laboratory Services in VCU’s School of Nursing.
In addition to helping the next generation of scientists find their calling, WIS also helps support education and promote the career development of its members both at the university and in the sciences.
It was formed as an offshoot of VCU’s long-running Women in Science, Dentistry and Medicine Faculty Organization (WISDM), said Jan Chlebowski, Ph.D., the medical school’s associate dean for Graduate Education and a faculty sponsor of WIS. “We basically just asked students, ‘do you want to have an organization like this,’ and people stepped up to the plate.”
“It’s important,” said Sturgill, “because it’s easy to feel like you’re in a silo when you spend most of your time in a lab. The genesis of WIS was finding a way to foster career development and networking and all of these important things that are not necessarily learned on the bench.”
During a pathology rotation, Girl Scouts (at right) learned to use a microscope to visually observe differences between healthy and unhealthy human cells while others (at left) looked at organs from patients with different conditions. Photography by Ayana Scott-Elliston.
The focus of WIS, however, is not all on its members; there’s a robust service aspect, that includes supporting Toys for Tots, Cinderella Dreams and the local food bank, as well as the Girl Scouts, noted Chlebowski.
The chance to mentor young students one-on-one is a big draw. Anuya Paranjape, MS’12 (MICR), who plans to finish her Ph.D. later this year in microbiology and immunology and microbiology, serves currently as one of WIS’ vice president of Community Outreach. She said she was impressed when she first attended the Girl Scout career day and saw its effect on students.
“I would have loved to do something like this when I was younger.”
By Lisa Crutchfield