Why STEM Students Should Keep Up with Current Events

By Ginette Mayas Samwel

True success in the STEM fields is not only dependent upon one’s dedication to innovation and study in the field, but to be aware of the world events and to understand that the commitment to science technology, engineering, and math are more than just academic disciplines. Knowledge and skills in these fields are key in identifying important issues and leading the way to intelligent solutions. However, keeping up with the news should not solely be the activity of political junkies. Those studying STEM should have a deeper understanding of how their fields can have a profound impact in political and social realms.

Reading a newspaperOn July 17, 2014, two events made the headlines. First, there was the tragic destruction of the Malaysian flight, MH17, carrying 298 passengers including the crew, that was brought down by a surface-to-air missile in Eastern Ukraine in an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists. It was also the second airline disaster this year. U.S. carriers had been directed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in April to avoid this area in the wake of the ongoing hostilities. Malaysian Airlines alleged that the pilot that day was somehow instructed to fly at 33,000 feet, 2,000 feet lower than what they had proposed, but 1,000 feet above the optimum altitude, meaning that the deviations were for reasons other than the flight path. The big chase weeks later was not only for the black box, which lay scattered among the debris at the crash site, but also for verification of the U.S. intelligence satellite images, phone intercepts, and navigating the media response, much of which pointed the finger at direct Russian involvement.

Often, we view the news and geopolitical conflicts as between politicians behind closed doors; however, our leaders depend on STEM experts to interpret data, which is what will hopefully happen with the black box of the Malaysian flight in Ukraine. We need STEM experts to make wise decisions, such as with the deviations in altitude and flight path and consider political conflicts as they arise.

On the other hand, the tech news almost always carries some significant social impact. Such is the case with the announcement by Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, that 18,000 jobs would be eliminated in the coming year. Out of the 18,000 jobs to be cut, 12,500 were professional level and factory jobs.

Yes, the Microsoft layoffs were certainly not welcome news for the employees directly impacted by them, but a closer look at the Microsoft case presents an opportunity for students studying technology to understand the complexities of technological innovation and the social consequences, positive and negative.

One week prior to the layoff announcement Nadella distributed an internal memo about the role of value propositions. The memo discussed the importance of ambient intelligence and technology as the pathway for Microsoft’s future success. “We live in a mobile-first and cloud-first world,” Nadella wrote in the memo. Ambient technology requires powerful and pervasive computing. However enabling these devices are, they still present significant changes in our professional and private lives.

It is clear, with just these headline examples, that the skills of STEM professionals play a major role in political and societal events. The way STEM factors into politics and society-at-large is a fascinating discussion, one that challenges the future of STEM’s professionals to think bigger than themselves and their universities, but much more globally.

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My Experience With i-Trek

By Christine Richardson

“If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.“ – Mao Zedong

Throughout life we experience new things every day that can positively influence our inherent knowledge. I have recently learned that the only way to gain “true” knowledge on a subject is for an individual to personally see, touch, smell, and embrace the subject, or else risk having no real feeling or passion for it. This is part of the mission of i-Trek. i-Trek gives students from various colleges and universities the opportunity to conduct hands-on research, as this experience is often not available at underfunded institutions. As a member of the trek pilot program, I was able to experience what that hands-on research is, and be taken into a world that gives the word “experience” a new outlook.

During the first days of the i-Trek program I was scared. I felt as though I had no real knowledge of the topic that was being presented as our trek research challenge. Also, the idea of meeting new people and going to a strange place with them reminded me of a line from a horror movie. Reluctantly, as I approached the rest of the team, I could see the nervous faces seep through behind the smiles, and I knew that everyone was just as nervous about this experience as I was. As I took my first steps out of the airport, with the team that I was going to spend the next two weeks with, I knew that I was about to go through an experience that would not only change my résumé, but my life experience and fundamental knowledge.

As the first day of the i-Trek program began, I met new people with different backgrounds. We gradually got to know one another and bits and pieces of everyone’s major and talents began to show. Eventually, as the program came to a close, we all became a family, and were grateful for the experience and the ability to share our knowledge and talents with others.

In conclusion, I learned a lot while in this program. I-Trek showed me my strengths in communication and presentation and things I can continue to improve upon (I had some difficulty with the diving!) so I will make an even better candidate when reaching my ultimate goals in STEM. Now, at the end of this program, I can certainly say that if I could go back through time knowing both the challenges as well as the benefits I would apply for this program all over again.

i-Trek Volunteer Tsehai

Tsehai Grell is a member of the co-founding i-Trek Team. As a volunteer, she finds time to contribute to i-Trek as well as pursue a PhD in Chemistry. Find out more about Tsehai and her contributions to i-Trek.

Hi Tsehai, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. Lets start with you telling us about yourself.
My name is Tsehai A.J. Grell and I am originally from the Commonwealth of Dominica. Over the last four years, I have been pursuing chemistry degrees in the United States- I received my B.S. In Chemistry from Morgan State and I am currently a PhD candidate in the Chemistry department at MIT. My research involves understanding the structure and function of Metalloenzymes using x-ray crystallography as the key structure determination tool.

What is your role on the i-Trek team?
I serve as a member of i-Trek’s Trek committee, fundraising committee and Board of Directors.

Why did you want to contribute to the i-Trek Team?
The main deciding factor for choosing between an American over a Caribbean education was the possibility of conducting research, something I knew very little about. My research experiences are the reason I am at MIT today- besides giving me a competitive edge, these experiences solidified whether I really wanted to do research.

I was really excited to to help out with I-Trek’s mission to provide research to non-traditional research opportunities underserved and underrepresented students as I my own trajectory has been greatly influenced by my undergraduate research opportunities. I wanted to be part of an organization that helped to provide research opportunities to students who may not have the resources to do research. I also wanted to help address the issue of the lack of minorities in the graduate STEM fields. As a double minority, a woman and Afro-Caribbean, this directly resonates with me. We have come a long way in diversifying these fields, but there is still a long way to go and I believe that I-Trek can help to do this.

Where do you see i-Trek going in the next 5 years?
In the next 5 years, I see i-Trek providing research opportunities for about 20 students by running 3-4 Treks simultaneously spanning different STEM fields. I see the program cultivating budding interdisciplinary scientist with strong research, professional and entrepreneurial skills- a new wave of academics that can move seamlessly between all these fields. I hope i-Trek will be recognized as research program that provides strong STEM graduate school candidates.

How did you become interested in STEM?
My interest in the chemistry and research was piqued during an applications of chemistry class that took the general chemistry we learned and put it into an everyday context. Though I had been doing chemistry for about 5 years, I never had the appreciation of the modern day application. This class looked at the recent application of chemistry in medicine, material science, and biology and transformed my thinking of chemistry as an archaic science into a modern one. It was at that point I realized I wanted to be part of this innovation, I wanted to dabble into the unknowns of chemical problems and discover what was yet to be discovered.

What single moment/experience helped to shape your current STEM career?
There are many moments which have collectively shaped my STEM career but one moment that stood out for me was my first summer doing research. I was lucky to be able to do undergraduate research under Dr. Aslan at Morgan State University. Our research aims were to engineer a technique which applied microwave heating and a metal surface to accelerate the crystallIzation of small molecules. It was during this summer I understood that research consist of many failures but the feeling of your project succeeding triumphs over all these failures. Dr. Aslan was an amazing mentor emphasizing not only the chemical knowledge and research technique but also perseverance and passion. Seeing the power of the combination of these four things that summer shaped me into a better scientist,

You were one of the volunteers on the i-Trek Pilot program. What was one highlight from your experience on the Trek?
It was amazing to interact with the students and see the Trek that we have been working on for a year come into fruition. One of the highlights of the experience was accompanying the students on their first data collection trip and seeing how they implemented their methodology and handmade data collection equipment to collect the data needed to answer their scientific problem. It was exciting to see them problem solve between dives to try to improve their data collection methodology and equipment. This is an important skill of a scientist- reflecting on a “bad result” and figuring out how to fix it. This experience showed we are our way to achieving one of our mission, creating an environment that the students could develop scientific skills and helping them become more competitive applicants for graduate school.

Where do you see yourself (career wise) in the next 10 years?
In the next 10 years, I hope to see myself pursuing an industrial position, running my own laboratory and doing research that will directly impact the lives of persons.

What kind of things do you like to do in your free time?
During my free time, I enjoy playing sports, hanging out with my friends and reading.

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and why?
I have always like to visit France. Located between two French colonies, Martinique and Guadeloupe, my island has a strong French influence. I have heard a lot about the beauty of France and would love to experience it for my self.