By Luke Netzley
Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor
The Society for Science & the Public honored Pasadena’s Susana Oliu of John Muir High School Early College Magnet as part of its Advocate Program for the second consecutive year.
The Advocate Program provides funding, training, materials and research equipment to make quality STEM learning and instruction easier and possible in the face of COVID-19 shutdowns.
“At this unprecedented time, it is essential we adapt swiftly and give students planned and effective pathways to access STEM mentors and research opportunities, despite an inability for many schools to remain open in person,” said Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public.
Last year, Oliu used the advocate grant, with the help of district volunteer Karen Jain, to guide students through their respective scientific projects. One student submitted a 60-page final report on space mathematics.
“I was so impressed because she did what a master’s student would have done, and she was only 17,” Oliu remarked. “She didn’t know the process, but we guided her through, and she was able to complete it.”
This year, Oliu’s students will tackle a range of topics including neurobiology, sickle cell anemia, water quality and hydroponic plants. In addition, she plans to revive the school science fair at John Muir, a schoolwide event that hasn’t occurred for nearly two decades.
“I went to the Research Teachers Conference and met all of these different teachers who were working on these science competitions throughout their high schools across the nation,” Oliu said.
She plans to host a yearly showcase of student-made scientific work in the school library spanning the subjects of chemistry, biology, environmental science, physics and engineering.
“I’m hoping that the whole process is embraced, the science fair becomes an annual event, and that we’re able to anchor it within the school.”
Oliu moved to Pasadena to teach at John Muir High School Early College Magnet in 2008, but was born in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, just 13 miles south. Her family of six included three brothers and two sisters all raised by her mother and grandmother, who both immigrated from Mexico in the 1950s. She described her childhood as difficult at times due to the financial struggles, racist discrimination, and rampant gang activity in the neighborhood that her and her family had to endure.
“Ever since we were kids, we had to fight for everything,” Oliu explained.
Though her mother was heavily involved in Oliu’s education throughout her life, from participating in preschool to attending school conferences, she knew little about the college education system and the benefits of a high school diploma. Regardless, Oliu was a motivated student who enjoyed learning about the sciences and went on to pursue a future in pediatrics.
As she grew older and began pre-med studies, Oliu realized the lack of practical scientific experience she had in high school — where she had learned almost exclusively from a textbook — meant her dream of pursuing her desired career began to slowly fall out of reach.
“The sciences were very difficult for me, and I struggled a lot throughout my undergraduate degree because I wasn’t adequately prepared.”
She did not work in a lab during high school, and when she went to college, she competed with other students from across the country who had these opportunities. She found that the rigor was beyond what she had imagined. It was this personal hardship that fueled her passion for teaching.
“When students are not being given the opportunities that I know are out there for them, it stings me because it reminds me of what I went through. It makes me want to fight for my students.”
Oliu graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from San Francisco State University. Afterward, she returned to Southern California, where she worked for the LA County Office of Education as a substitute teacher in classrooms for children with disabilities. She earned her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and her credentials in special education from Cal Poly Pomona.
Oliu then began working as a high school science teacher at John Muir High School Early College Magnet and has since been teaching students with mild to moderate disabilities. She is an educational leader and a beacon of hope for many students who may not have otherwise had an opportunity to explore their love for the sciences. With the help of the Society for Science & the Public’s Advocate Program, Oliu will continue to help guide the future doctors, scientists and engineers of Pasadena.