Reflections: Volunteering at Johnson Elementary School’s Science Fair

Reflections: Volunteering At Johnson Elementary School’s Science Fair

by Katherine Hornsby, Analytical Scientist, Bioanalytical Chemistry

Earlier this year I was doing what we scientists often do: I was organizing data in Excel, double-checking sig figs, and finishing up a report. I was also doing something I don’t often do: I was eavesdropping. Michelle Mason was a couple of yards away asking Vanessa Dolores about volunteers. It was all a blur really. Something about “STEM program.” Something about “children.” Something about “science fair.” Before I knew it, I was interrupting to see if they would sign me up already.

Fast forward to February, there we were—me and fellow MicroConstants scientists, Jessica Maynard and Justine Potter, clipboards in hands, walking down rows of carefully crafted (well, not all of them) research posters! It was much less intimidating than the last research presentations any of us had attended; no obscure equations or computer code or confusing biosynthetic pathways. There were bubbles! Glitter! Toy cars (I LOVE toy cars)! There were a few good graphs, too (which all scientists LOVE); my favorite showed the effects of distracting background music on memory, controlling for age! The boy conducted his research at his neighborhood YMCA, apparently a great place to enroll subjects in simple trials, and told me he was motivated by his own struggle with ADHD and a desire to show everyone that he can do well in school (I 100% believe he can, by the way).

Judges had a chance to look around at the posters before the children came in to present, one grade at a time. Each child presented to at least two judges, some scientists like Jessica, Justine, and me, some Navy Sailors, and a few connected to STEM or education in other ways. The children presented their hypotheses, experimental procedures, results, and conclusions, as well as acknowledgements of who helped them and how. Something we three from MicroConstants noticed right away was that some kids had a lot more help than others, sobering to think about because of what it could mean for these kids’ futures. Regardless, most of the presenters were enthusiastic; and as someone who made it through college and landed in a meaningful career despite limited resources early on, I’m optimistic for these kids.

I related to some of the kids and found the experience humbling because it helped me reflect on life since my first elementary school science fair (I presented on the water cycle). At an early age I believed everything was possible: Sure, I could be an astronaut someday, why not? But eventually doubts crept in: Can girls become scientists? Nobody in my family’s gone to college… can I really do it?

That’s why it was so cool to hear Jessica (who recently earned her master’s degree in Chemistry from UC San Diego) talk about the little boy who asked, “YOU’RE a scientist?!” and how she could proudly answer, “YES, I am!”

That’s why it was so cool to realize, Wow, I’m a chemist. These are my friends and they’re scientists, too. We all work on potentially life-changing, world-changing compounds every day at MicroConstants. It wasn’t lost on me that all three of us were women, too. As Justine said, “We didn’t set out to be role models or to specifically send female scientists to the science fair. It just happened that we were the ones who volunteered that day. But I mean, we are role models, and it’s really neat. I did science fairs in elementary school, and we never had actual scientists come in. We just had teachers and parents. So, I think it’s cool we got to go and show these kids that this is what a scientist can look like. We’re pretty young, we’re women, we’re real people.”

Maybe we made science seem like a real career path for someone. We’ll probably never know, but Justine, Jessica, and I agreed it was a good time and we’d do it again. When the fair was over, we walked past the school courtyard where the children were eating lunch and they sent us off with happy shouts and smiles and tiny waving hands; I’ll take that as evidence they had a good time, too.