What I Learned from a 17-year-old STEM Student

One of my major interests is to ensure a diverse and inclusive research enterprise, where one’s background does not constitute a disadvantage in being able to pursue a scientific career. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to encourage girls who are interested in STEM careers at an early age.

Earlier this year, I applied for and was accepted as a mentor in the 1000 girls, 1000 futures program. This global online volunteer mentoring program launched by New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) as part of the Global STEM Alliance (GSA) aims to support the next generation of STEM leaders and foster a global network of students in STEM. The program works by pairing high school-aged girls with STEM mentors for a year-long, one-to-one mentorship and helping mentees develop skills in leadership, communication, critical thinking, and academic readiness.

In this program, I mentored Fatimata Cham, a 17-year old high school junior attending The White Mountain School in New Hampshire. She is a muslim and a first-generation Gambian American, born in the South Bronx, NY, who loves reading books and writing poetry, and plans to major in political science and minor in engineering once she goes to college.

Getting to know your mentee

Fatimata had been bullied a lot, but this only made her more determined to stand up for others, as well as be more respectful, compassionate, and kind. This summer, while preparing for college, she planned to pursue an independent project on educational inequality in STEM and other areas, and collect data from local schools on population poverty and graduation rates.

Another inspiring thing about Fatimata is how much she enjoys writing about stories that affect people, as well as sharing her own story in order to help others. She wrote very personal stories for Muslim Youth Musings and expressed her opinions on very difficult topics such as shootings at schools. I admire her bravery in being so open about her thoughts on these topics. She enjoys blogging because she can reach other audiences, and is also comfortable in getting her thoughts out in writing.

She is also passionate about environmental sustainability. After realizing how this issue connected with homelessness and poverty, she began helping start farms at local schools. This project gave her the opportunity to learn communicating on a topic that she was passionate about. She says it also helped her understand how people think and see the world.

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Fatimata presented a project idea for combatting plastic pollution at the New York Academy of the Sciences. (Photo: The New York Academy of the Sciences)

Feeling inspired by your mentee

She gave a speech at the United Nations to the general assembly, on the topic of what she would like to change about the world. She chose gender and racial inequality, which affected both her life and that of others. She bravely presented about a situation where she dealt with this issue. She felt nervous and also really excited to be included in gender equality conversations where young people are often left out. Speaking at the United Nations led her to become a teen advisor for Girl Up, a global movement of empowered young women leaders who defend gender equality.

Throughout the NYAS program, I learned about her leadership style as a ‘quiet leader’, and how she identified with the NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps as someone who overcame adversity and kept pushing forward towards her goals. I also learned that she is more comfortable talking with people of the same age or with the same expertise. She is also very much the thinker and sensitive type of personality, who enjoys talking about anything going on in the news related to politics, science, history or other topics that other young kids her age don’t think about. I suspect this is largely due to her high level of maturity.

As we progressed through the NYAS program, we began to realize that we are actually quite similar to each other…

As we progressed through the NYAS program, we began to realize that we are actually quite similar to each other in personality, and in terms of planning to use our past adversity to do something good in the world and be kind to others, while also wanting to impact the world and feel empowered by our work.

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On International Day of the Girl 2018, Michelle Obama invited Girl Up to attend the Today Show. As a teen advisor for Girl Up, Fatimata got to go. She says, “It was an exciting experience and allowed me to use my voice.”

Conclusions

Although this program was set up for mentors to teach the mentees various life skills and help them navigate the transition to college, Fatimata taught me so much. We had great conversations about leadership and communication skills, but also about empowerment, doing something impactful in the world and how that made us feel, in addition to the importance of bringing important issues in front of whose who needed to listen.

I learned that a high school student like her is what we should be aiming for to teach our future scientists to think about and be like.

I hope that I provided her with some useful advice stemming from my own life experiences, and I am very grateful to have been chosen for this program. I can truly say that I was also mentored during this process, perhaps even more so than I have mentored her. I learned that a high school student like her is what we should be aiming for to teach our future scientists to think about and be like. I know that she will accomplish great things in the future, and I look forward to following her path and seeing the positive changes she will make in the world.

Adriana Bankston

Adriana Bankston is the Associate Director of Fundraising and Strategic Initiatives at Future of Research, a nonprofit organization with a mission to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor. She became involved with Future of Research in 2016, conducting research on the national landscape of postdoctoral salaries. Her main interests are improving training and policies affecting early career scientists, and being an advocate on their behalf.

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