Drinks, chips and STEM

Rockville’s young adult science café is a win-win

ASBMB Universities of Shady Grove student chapter officers Mitra Nusraty, honorarium committee chair, Nana Anguah Dei, vice president, Tin Lok Wong, president, Serene Roque, secretary, and Romain Asima, event archive committee chair.

During the 2014 – 15 academic year, groups of middle school, high school and college students gathered after hours in a classroom at the Universities of Shady Grove in Rockville, Md., to munch on snacks and spend some time with local scientists. Participants in a series called the Young Adult Science Café, or YA, the group heard presentations and engaged in informal discussions meant to create dialogue, promote interest in and awareness about STEM, and provide opportunities for any would-be scientists in attendance to hear insiders’ takes on potential science careers.

A program of the Rockville Science Center that is organized by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology student chapter of the Universities at Shady Grove, the YA series was initiated by ASBMB member Edward Eisenstein in 2012. We chapter organizers keep it going, motivated to create opportunities that we wish we would have had when we were in high school. Back then, we might have known we were interested in science but rarely had opportunities to interact with a scientist and never got the chance to explore and understand different career paths within STEM. We also understand that interacting with scientists can be very intimidating. We developed the program to be informal so that students comfortably can take advantage of the opportunity to meet scientists and satisfy their curiosity about STEM careers. Featured scientists make a special effort to be approachable. Some have debunked myths related to their specialties, and they often tell funny anecdotes and offer sneak peeks into potential breakthroughs in their fields.

Mitra Nusraty, an honorarium committee chair for YA, has seen scientist–student interactions go very well. “Sometimes, students hesitate to ask questions because they are shy. However, we the undergraduates know what questions to ask because we once had these questions within ourselves! It makes us extremely happy whenever we see students approach our speakers during the break session or after the talk. This means that we are creating opportunities — dialogues for these students that we wish we once had,” she says.

Now that the café has been running for a few years, it’s clear we are connecting supply and demand. We connect passionate scientists who are eager to educate with students who want to know what it takes to be a scientist. Attendees learn from speakers, organizers gain leadership experience and opportunities to network with scientists, and speakers are able to do public outreach and encourage the next generation of STEM professionals. As Nana Anguah-Dei, YA chapter vice president, says, “We are all learning!”

Through YA, we strive to provide clarification on the role of a scientist. This last year, students learned that scientists not only perform bench work in a laboratory but also work as grant writers or reviewers for organizations that allocate funding for various research projects, experts on the world stage who combine global efforts to prevent pandemics, or even educators who mentor and nurture generations of new scientists. In order for each student to understand these roles and find where she or he belongs in the future, we found the best way is to meet scientists doing those jobs.

Our location helps. We are fortunate to be in Rockville, Md., one of the world’s centers for scientific research and a town that is just down the road from the National Institutes of Health. Our February speaker, David J. Spiro, who is the influenza section chief at the NIH, remarked that Rockville is one of the most resource-filled cities in the United States for STEM careers. He felt that students interested in STEM fields should take more advantage of those resources. Michelle Aroyo–Perez, who is YA’s treasurer, says that’s part of our group’s mission. “We would like to ensure young scholars can have access to these valuable resources within the community so that the community can grow continuously as a whole.”

Six talks were held at the Universities at Shady Grove over the 2014 – 2015 academic year. Our final gathering took place off campus: a talk and tour of the hottest new labs at the Germantown Campus of Montgomery College co-hosted by James Sniezek, Montgomery College’s collegewide dean of chemical and biological sciences. We see a future opportunity to expand YA to all three of Montgomery College’s Maryland campuses.

The YA series starts up again in October.

Tin Lok Wong Tin Lok Wong has a bachelor’s degree in biological science from the University of Maryland. He was president of the ASBMB student chapter at the Universities at Shady Grove from 2013 to 2015.