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Defining STEM Pathways for Young Female Students

September 12, 2018

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Brookhaven National Laboratory STEM event

[Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Brookhaven National Laboratory's website.]

For the past five years, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory has partnered with a local chapter of Girls Inc., a nonprofit organization that meets the specific challenges facing young women. The partnership helps to encourage young women towards careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This year, the Lab hosted 44 girls over a two-week period, engaging them in real-life science experiments and activities.

“We partnered with Girls, Inc. to encourage girls to consider a STEM career as they head to high school,” said Ken White, manager of Brookhaven’s Office of Educational Programs (OEP). “The educators in my department develop specific curriculum that align with the Lab’s research programs and include true experiments that the girls participate in, from start to finish.”

This summer, during a career panel enrichment component of the program, participants met three Lab researchers: Prerana Kankiya, a software developer designing controls for particle accelerators; Fatima Foflonker, a microbiologist, computational biologist, and algal biofuels researcher; and Kashmira Nakhoda, an optical metrology researcher. The three women shared what personally inspired them to pursue a STEM career and the challenges they faced. The women also offered advice about balancing work and life. 

Week One: Alternative Energy

To meet the world’s growing energy needs, Brookhaven researchers are working on developing groundbreaking and “game-changing” technologies for better batteries and efficient, sustainable energy resources.

“The students became familiar with basic electrical circuits and the science behind alternative sources of energy,” said Susan Frank, an educator from OEP and the lead instructor for this portion of the two-week program.

To keep it interesting, Frank had the participants make a nanocrystalline solar cell using berries, and then design and construct cardboard model houses that that would get energy from solar power. They also investigated the chemical properties of metals used in batteries and built a wind turbine.

Week Two: Biotech and Biofuels

Moving from energy research to biofuels, the second week focused on the basics of working in a laboratory — from using micropipettes and microscopes to working with different strains of bacteria. The week was led by OEP educator Amanda Horn.

“In one experiment, the girls infected E. coli with a bacteriophage to observe the plaques formed from a viral infection,” said Horn. “Then, using a different strain of bacteria, they transformed E. coli to produce and purify a green fluorescent protein.”

The girls also used corn, potatoes, duckweed, and filter paper, along with specific enzymes and yeast, to produce their own biofuels.  

 “I’ve been to the Lab’s science camp a few times and I just love being here. This was a really fun week and I learned a lot,” said Gionna Pillitteri, a 10th-grader from West Islip High School who says she wants to be an astrophysicist or a biologist.

“Working with these young, inquisitive students who get excited when their experiment is a success is the best part of teaching,” said Horn.

Successful Outcomes

Lauren Cottral, a participant in Brookhaven’s High School Research Program who worked in the physics department this summer, first visited the Lab as a Girls Inc. participant a few years ago.  Cottral spoke to the current Girls Inc. participants on her positive experiences at the Lab.

Erika Patterson, a winner of the Lab’s 2018 African American Affinity Group scholarship, also first came to Brookhaven through the Girls Inc. summer program.

“A primary mission of Girls Inc. is to help provide young girls with the knowledge, resources, and skills to live healthy, educated, and independent lives and access meaningful opportunities,” said Renee Flagler, Executive Director at Girls Inc. “We are grateful for the support from Brookhaven National Laboratory in helping us achieve our mission by providing unprecedented STEM and educational opportunities that expose our girls to the hard sciences in a way that is both engaging and enriching. These programs have proved to be life-changing for our girls.”

“We are pleased to be part of this collaborative program that is definitely having a positive impact in diversity and inclusion, and encouraging young women to pursue STEM careers,” added White.

The Girls Inc. program at Brookhaven Lab is funded through National Grid’s Patricia Clark Michels Memorial STEM Camp Scholarship, which has committed to sponsoring 40 girls each summer to come to Brookhaven Lab for five years.  Additional financial support comes from the Long Island Community Foundation and PSEG.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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