Pursuing My Sister’s Dream through Summer Outreach

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Some of the CARTS crew: (L-R) Nathan Sanford, ASCB member Kristen Dostie, high school volunteer Elizabeth Mcdougall, ASCB member Sriparna Ghosh, and ASCB member Meghan Monroy.

In my school days like most of my fellow students, I felt bored in science classes, which were then mostly lectures. But my elder sister, Shyamali Ghosh, who would later became an accomplished scientist, an organic and medicinal chemist, always taught me that if I could relate a scientific topic to an everyday event that would allow me to visualize it and then analyze logically the fundamentals of the topic.

Visualization leads to the logical analogy. That is one of the reasons that hands-on activities can help you understand the mysteries and wonders of the universe. Basic ideas of science are everywhere in your regular life. All you have to do is to be curious, imaginative, and willing to apply your analytical skills. I took this idea from my sister to heart and have always tried to find appropriate ways to use it when reaching out to students. My goal is always to encourage them to think critically about their surroundings and to explore their own ideas. I also bear this in mind when talking to people who are not scientists. When explaining events with a scientific dimension, say a recent improvement in medicine that has implications for public health, I look for a visual starting point and proceed from there, using lay terms instead of jargon. The public needs to be aware of new inventions in science but we must be careful not to oversell an innovation or provoke panic when discussing disease.

With this quest in mind, I joined ASCB’s Public Information Committee (PIC) in 2011 but what spurred me to start a summer science program for school-age students near my home in Connecticut was a personal tragedy. My only sister was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at 45. As I watched her health deteriorate, I tried to think of ways to pass on her ideas about visualizing principles for students and the public. Since then I have faced many more challenges than I ever imagined to get my program going but I think of my sister and try to redouble my efforts.

Many bright, talented students turn away from science because they find it difficult or uninteresting as it’s presented in too many schools or because their schools lack proper learning resources. Most critically, they get little real encouragement to use science as a way to make sense of their world. I don’t blame schools or science teachers. Science ommunication and especially making science exciting to diverse groups of students is a quite a challenge in its own right.

I came up with an idea that I thought I could try. I would create a summer science program for young students, using visiting scientists from different career levels from both academia and industry for inspiration along with PhD-level students as mentors for school-age students. During my transition years from postdoc to faculty member, I found that experience with organization, curriculum development, and hands-on teaching helped grad students or postdocs with their careers in either academics or industry. While I was still designing what would become my CARTS program last summer, I went to the ASCB 2014 Annual Meeting with the goal of discussing my idea with interested graduate students. At the career discussion table I was leading, I met a young graduate student, Michael Lemieux from the University of Connecticut. Michael was not only very interested in my outreach idea but he inspired a number of his fellow grad students, Sally Chamberland, Meghan Monroy, Kristin Dostie, and Nathan Sanford to join our initiative. I suggested that they write an ASCB application for a COMPASS outreach grant, which they did. It was funded and along with the support from my own company, CaresBio Laboratory LLC (CBL), our summer science school idea was off the ground at last.

I started this program with three major goals. First I wanted to encourage school-age students to explore an interest in science without the bother of the rat race for grades. Instead, students would receive training in computer science, robotics, as well as the biological and physical sciences. This would set them free to work independently or in groups on questions that caught their attention. They would also receive training on how to present their work in meetings, competitions, or other settings.

My second goal was to develop the mentoring skills of my graduate students. They would learn to plan and develop a curriculum for the young students while gaining hands-on teaching experience themselves. The summer course would also help sharpen their writing and communication skills. The last but not the least goal was to encourage more women to choose science as their career option. At both CBL and CARTS, we have a significant number of talented women serving as scientists and mentors. One of our goals was to encourage parents and their daughters to explore science.

Last summer, we launched CARTS, our unique program with a strong experimental element built in. We learned something at every step along the way, much as we do in a lab pursuing an experimental campaign. The summer science school was sponsored by my company, CBL, through its outreach program initiative, which we call CARTS. We were also proud to acknowledge the support we have had from ASCB through the COMPASS outreach grant. The grad student volunteers provided their time and their personal experience in making the transition from science student to scientist. At the end of the summer school, we were thrilled to see the excited faces of our young participants and to receive the many thank you notes sent by their families.

There were challenges. For me, the toughest was recruiting the young students for the CARTS summer school. Attempts to contact local schools and educational authorities met with little response. Still we found a portion of the local community who were quite supportive of our program. There were positives, the greatest being our grad student mentors who gave time and personal resources to CARTS. They were the power behind our summer experiment. Another essential force was the experienced mentors, including Elizabeth Raver, Albert Fritch, and other science faculty from area institutions plus CBL’s own scientists and advisors. I may not be able to name them all here but I keenly appreciate their efforts.

Through it all, I thought of my only sister whom I lost in the end to cancer, she who had always been my role model and who laid the foundation of this program. In her last days, we talked about what she would have liked to have done or to have seen completed. The only thing she asked me was to help young students become smart scientists, giving them the chance to use their potential to contribute to society with new cures for disease or new ways to improve the quality of human life. This was her dream for society, not a personal one.

She is not with us anymore. But I am trying to carry her dream forward with the wonderful support from the entire CARTS community. For these young kids, we want to take science out of the classroom and out of the grade system through our summer program. Our idea is simple—“Educate to innovate.” At CARTS, we are open for any form of collaboration to move this initiative forward. We are continuing the CARTS program throughout the year now beside our summer school program, with more focused goals and even better planning. My hope is to inspire others in the way my sister inspired me. Visualize the problem before and then you will see the logic of science within.

 

About the Author:


Sriparna Ghosh is the CEO of CaresBio Laboratory, LLC, and a member of the ASCB Public Information Committee. She trained as a cellular immunologist with a focus in cancer research at MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and was on the faculty at Yale University.

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