How Were You First Introduced to STEM?

Manavi Chatterjee (Biology):

My school only offered science and I was good at it and always interested to learn new things in science.

Rajeev Erramilli (Physics):

I was very lucky in that I had a lot of wonderful role models. My uncle is a physicist, and when I was a baby as soon as I could say the word “light” he made sure to (jokingly) correct me with “no, photon!” Humor aside, he was always keen to keep me going with popular science books when I got older, along with my parents (who are engineers). I’ve wanted to be a scientist since at least late elementary school, because before that I wanted to be a racecar driver, haha. But I can’t say there was any particular moment that made me come to that decision. Here are a few of my favorite memories: making liquid nitrogen ice cream with my uncle; reading about the jet age of aviation over and over again; and learning about the math concept of “cardinality” (how there isn’t one “infinity” but rather different “sizes” of infinities) from the book 1, 2, 3… Infinity when I was really bored one summer during a family trip to India.

Juri Miyamae (Earth and Planetary Sciences)

My interest in STEM gradually arose from a love of Nature.  I struggled a lot with math.  Thankfully, I could read and write on my own, much to the relief of my Japanese-speaking immigrant parents.  In comparison, a love of Nature was relatively easy for them to encourage:  we went camping all over the West Coast in a yellow ’76 Dodge van my father converted into a RV by hand, they allowed me to spend long hours by myself to explore neighborhood lakes, and they sacrificed meagre paychecks so I could visit aquariums and museums (which they did not particularly enjoy themselves).  I was so lucky to have a wonderful and enthusiastic 7th grade biology teacher who helped me bridge that gap between being a filthy child in a tidepool and being a naturalist who could identify local plants and animals, where they lived, and how they came together in an ecosystem.  


Despite this more intensive study, I still only had a vague idea of going into STEM and scientists remained enigmatic figures always flitting through scenes of wildlife documentaries and the pages of library books (the internet only became widely available by the time I went to college, so access to information was much more limited back then).  Even slogging through school assignments that required me to research careers in STEM did not provide me with much clarity.  But then in early high school, I watched a PBS Nature documentary, “Incredible Suckers,” about the amazing world of cephalopods.  This completely blew my mind!  I was so completely mesmerized by octopus that could flow through mazes like water and cuttlefish flashing colors in utterly alien psychedelic displays yet also cutely recognized their favorite humans by greeting them with happy squirts of water.  But what really grabbed my imagination were deep sea squid.  They looked so bizarre, like no other animal I had ever seen before.  My favorite was Vampyroteuthis infernalis, with its blue marble of an eye against dark red skin and eight arms joined together with webbing that could invert like an umbrella in a gust of wind to reveal rows of soft grey spikes.  What were they doing?!?  How could they survive the extreme conditions of the deep sea?  How are such animals even possible??  I knew at that moment that the way to answer those questions was to become a marine biologist.  Once I had that vision – that there existed particular, irresistible mysteries that could only be examined within the intellectual and institutional infrastructure of science – a career path clicked into place.

Martha Muñoz (Ecology and Environmental Biology)

It was beyond the scope of my understanding of the world to think that I could be a scientist. I had no idea what that meant.  I’m a first-generation American, born to Cuban parents who were escaping really bad circumstances: hunger, oppression, and a lack of basic freedoms. To them, coming to the United States was a chance to escape poverty and destitution. From their perspective, the best way to do that as you might imagine, was for us to become doctors or lawyers. That’s really the bread-and-butter that I was fed as a child. 


I knew that I loved nature, so I thought that the way that I could marry my passions with their dreams was to become a veterinarian, in particular a wildlife veterinarian. I used to watch Nature Documentaries and saw that the documentary teams often had a vet with them in the wild. It never occurred to me that maybe those vets were accompanying scientists doing research. I had zero exposure. I was born in 1985, when access to the internet was extremely limited. It was a very different internet in those days, so it just never occurred to me that I could do this. 


That all changed in college when I started my undergraduate studies at Boston University. The very first day of my first year there, I attended lecture for the Intro Biology sequence, Bio 107. There, we learned about evolution, a topic that was intentionally glossed over in my public school curriculum in high school, even though I grew up in New York City. The professor was talking about the Cambrian Explosion, an incredibly important moment in geological history during which many of the animal life-forms that we know and recognize today seem to very rapidly appear in the fossil record. 


The Cambrian representatives of those lineages are so different from anything today; they’re almost alien-esque. One of them, Hallucigenia, is an organism so bizarre that it was reconstructed as walking upside down. Nobody could figure out which side was right side up for decades. Suddenly I was introduced to the deep history of life and all of its parallels and yet important differences between those assemblages and the contemporary ones. It suddenly broadened my conceptual and temporal perspective of the world and I discovered the sort of questions that evolutionary biologists were asking. My world suddenly expanded so quickly, I was moved to tears and I knew right there and then that in some shape or fashion I had to study evolution, whatever that meant. 


Concurrently I took a work-study position in a neuroscience/neuroethology lab. The PI, Dr. Ayako Yamaguchi, was a Japanese-American woman, an immigrant like my parents, and relatively young. She told me what it was like for her to grow up and come to the US. I related to her.  She was doing science. The realization happened almost immediately. I had this moment. Our first experiment happened and we saw the data flash across the computer screen and I thought, “Oh! We’re doing ‘science’. This is how science is made.”


This is science. It’s not all bearded old men in lab coats. When I was a kid, if you asked me to name a scientist, I would have said Einstein or other people who looked like that. 


It was a major revelation for me and immediately life-changing. Imagine going 18 years or so thinking I know who I’m going to be, that I knew what I was going to do, and then in the first week of undergraduate studies having THIS revelation of what my life could be and immediately dropping the pre-veterinary track and switching to a research-based career. And, frankly, I haven’t looked back since.

Rowan Palmer (Engineering):

For as long as I can remember, I enjoyed math, science, and art. Although I was good at them, I definitely saw myself as a more artistic person, who just happened to also do STEM things, and this persisted most of the way through middle school. What really made me realize how much I loved science was how much I loved science museums. We’d go places for school field trips, and I’d read every sign and try every little experiment. I’d always beg to go to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and was amazed every time by the room on weather, specifically on energy and how lightning is generated. Museums helped me create this idea that science and engineering were magic with which nothing was impossible.
My dad is an electrical engineer, and I grew up seeing him working from home and building things, and he always had a way of answering a very simple question the long way, with lots of extra information about stuff that he found interesting. It wasn’t that he did or did not encourage me to pursue STEM, but rather that he supported me in school, and helped me know what was possible. My mom also balanced me out in the humanities, as an English and History major in college and a current elementary school librarian. My whole life, I’ve had outlets to ask the big questions and have had discussions about topics in STEM and humanities that I’ve found interesting, and I know I’m very lucky for that. 

It wasn’t until right before high school that I really felt like being an engineer and working in STEM was for me. My sister, who is two years older, joined my high school’s robotics, and I volunteered to help out with some of their videography. (At the time, I wanted to work in film and entertainment). But seeing all of these high schoolers building robots and making the technology come to life, I realized that engineering was a place where my love for art and math and science could all come together in one place. It was here – seeing my sister do engineering and seeing people my age creating technology right in front of me – that I realized I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, and I haven’t really looked back since. 


Dr. Sreeganga Chandra (Neuroscience):

I come from an academic family so you could say something about the fruit not falling far from the tree.


Youngmin Shin (Computer Science):

Both my parents were researchers, my mom worked in plant biology in my dad worked in virus biology. In 7th grade I took part in science Olympiad and that really pushed me to pursue science; I think a bunch of middle schoolers working together was a great motivator to just learn more.  Later I participated in a gender minority hackathon at UNC and I think that was the tipping point.


Chika Ogbejesi (Neuroscience):

I have always liked science, my Junior year in high school I took AP biology and visited the Rockefeller center. This [the Rockefeller center] was the first time I was introduced to research and I remember thinking that it was cool, I think the trip made it more clear how I wanted to go about science.

Nazar Chowdhury (Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology):

“In childhood, I’d say mostly just stems from my parents both being physicians. so a lot of it was just wanting to do what they did kind of blindly but that allowed me to explore biology and explore and talk to them about medicine. I just looked things up that related to medicine. I was interested in zoology really really really early and I just loved animals in learning about them. I think that was kind of the Genesis. I read an encyclopedia about animals but when I was a kid and it was like all I wanted to read. I think that transitioned in probably middle school when I started learning about biology. That interest transitioned from animals to just human biology where I really really was interested and I think it was more confirming because before it was just a fantasy to be a doctor like my parents but then it started being like I think I really like the subject and can imagine myself doing it. If there was a particular moment, I think seventh grade when I studied human anatomy for the first time would be one that sticks out but it wouldn’t just be like one moment where I was 100% where I was like this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I think a moment where I was absolutely sure I wanted to do medicine comes a bit later in college but I was on the path at that point.”