Laleh Coté is the Internship Coordinator for Workforce Development & Education at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She is also a NSF GRFP STEM Education & Learning Fellow and a member of the Graduate Group in Science & Mathematics Education (SESAME) at the University of California, Berkeley. Laleh received A.S. and A.A. degrees in Science and Liberal Arts from Laney College in 2010, a B.A. in Biology from San Francisco State University in 2012, and began her doctoral studies at UC Berkeley in 2016, where she is studying Science Education (Ph.D.) and Microbiology (master’s) in the Baranger Group.
As an undergraduate, Laleh worked in the Andersen Lab for 4 years at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), participating in both the CCI and SULI programs during that time. She then worked as a part of the Transplantation Research Laboratory at UCSF Medical Center before returning to work at the Lab. Since 2011, she has been working as the Internship Coordinator with Workforce Development & Education at LBNL, supporting interns in many programs, including BLUFF, BLUR, CCI, GEM, MLEF, MEISPP, SULI, and VFP. Her research interests include culturally-responsive pedagogies, evaluation and assessment of STEM undergraduate research experiences (UREs), and increasing diversity in STEM fields by addressing issues of equity and access. Passionate about her community, she serves on the Steering Committee for the Coalition for Education & Outreach (CEO) and provides support to TechWomen, Marcus Foster Education Institute, Black Girls CODE, Level Playing Field Institute, and the Cards Against Humanity Science Ambassador Scholarship.
What inspired you to work in STEM?
As a young child, I dealt with some skin conditions that were challenging to treat, and it really impacted my self-esteem. Around puberty, I developed some circulation issues, which made some social activities (e.g., attending a football game on a chilly night) very difficult for me. I think these experiences were among those that shaped my interest in learning about the human body, and I declared a biology major in hopes of attending medical school. However, once I began working with scientists at Berkeley Lab (as an undergraduate intern), I became passionate about microbiology and conducting research beyond my initial interests. As time goes by, my interest in STEM continues to evolve and expand.
Initially my desire to study biology in college was sparked by a general interest in human health and immunology, but I have stayed in STEM because I understand it to be a place where you can apply creativity and problem-solving to your curiosity about our world/universe. Also, there are many people working in STEM who are not scientists, but they make valuable contributions to new discoveries. Think of people in operations, safety, policy, education, etc. - I like that there are opportunities for collaboration between these different groups.
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I have interacted with more than 800 unique interns since joining Workforce Development & Education in 2011. My work with these students has really given me a new life. I learn both from the students and the researchers who mentor them, and I have front-row seats to some of the most exciting scientific research in the world. This is extremely rewarding and I love to hear from our alumni about their new projects. It is fascinating to see how a national lab funded by the Department of Energy increases its ability to make great discoveries by building (and sharing) large User Facilities and encouraging interdisciplinary teams to try out their ideas. Having access to a national network is very powerful, and the number of visiting researchers that conduct research at Berkeley Lab is astounding. (Also, it’s pretty awesome to work at the same place where I fell in love with research as a student myself - this place holds a lot of memories that are very valuable to me.)
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
Mentoring! At any level, mentoring is such a valuable resource, regardless of your specific interests. If a person does not come from a family of STEM professionals, the possible career pathways available can be very mysterious. For example, not all undergraduates realize that the majority of Ph.D. programs in STEM fields offer a stipend to graduate students, in addition to the wide variety of fellowships available nationally. This information could completely change the perspective of a student who may not know how accessible an education in STEM really is! A good mentor can make you feel like you belong, and this is what happened to me. There are enough people out there telling you that you’re not good enough. Your mentor can help you develop confidence and self-esteem to apply yourself to great opportunities.
Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
My journey into the “world of science” officially began about six years after high school, and I wish someone had told me that not knowing what you want to do with your life at high school graduation isn’t just okay … it’s normal! Sure, there are those people who figure it out soon after high school, but I wasn’t like that. I’ve always been interested in many topics, and perhaps that’s why I found my way from writing to music to biology to STEM education.
A lot of people interested in STEM education have been inspired by some type of education outreach, such as tutoring or volunteering with a K-12 group. This is a great place to start, to gauge your skill set and perhaps to identify what age group you're interested in working with in the future.
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I love spending time with my husband, son, and our puppy. It can be challenging to balance work, doctoral research, and family time, but it’s also crucial to my well-being. We manage to play at the park, watch movies (like Harry Potter and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), and build forts - these activities really keep me grounded amidst a sea of meetings and reading papers. I also love to sing (mostly in my car), read and write about science, and listen to podcasts.
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