By Gerard Wright
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

Six women, various ages. Different backgrounds, different motivations, different paths to the same place and time — a month and a half of in-person and virtual teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), the educational practice that improves girls’ self-esteem and shows a path to their possible future.

Amina Malone, Arleth Angeles and her older sister, Haydee, were among the eight high school students from Marshall Fundamental and CIS Academy who took part in the inaugural STEM summer class staged by Huntington Medical Research Institutes (HMRI) in Pasadena for six weeks this summer.

Dr. Nicole Purcell, Dr. Anju Vasudevan and Jacki Fonseca were among their teachers and instructors.

The aim was to announce HMRI’s presence to the larger school community, while targeting STEM principles and possibilities at science students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with a view to both providing opportunity and also reinforcing the truth that science is a meritocracy.

Purcell, the program’s director, is proof of that. The child of factory workers, she was the first member of her family to graduate college. Apart from her role as senior research scientist at HMRI’s cardiovascular division, she is also an adjunct associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

“It’s important for students to understand that science is reachable for anyone,” Purcell said.

Arleth, an 11th grade student at Marshall Fundamental, agreed.

“Aside from all the learning, talking to Dr. Purcell and the other scientists, she just made it seem like working in the STEM field was possible for me, and that was all I needed,” she said.

This was less to do with altruism than restoring the balance of opportunity, explained Carlos Aguirre, Ph.D., the education program manager for HMRI.

“Science is made up of diverse scientists from across the world,” Aguirre said. “We don’t want anyone’s socioeconomic background to be an obstacle to pursuing a STEM education or career.”

The idea of a summer program was conceived in 2019 by HMRI chief executive Dr. Julia Bradsher. Coronavirus shutdowns caused last year’s proposed start to be postponed. The revived 2021 version took place virtually, with occasional laboratory visits providing the eight participating students with more hands-on exposure.

For at least some of the participants and their supervisors, past and present challenges informed their choices.

Fonseca, who taught the STEM class, recalled the trials of her freshman biology class at Bell High School driving her in this direction. An honors track student, poor handwriting caused her biology teacher to fail her twice.

Studying for her master’s degree in science education at Cal State Northridge, Fonseca went to adult, summer and Saturday classes to pass both semesters.

Not the best experience, Fonseca said, although “weirdly” it prompted the decision to pursue science teaching. “I wanted to do better than that,” she said of her own experience.

The new frontiers of genetics and DNA made the STEM classes more of a personal quest for students Amina Malone, 15, and Haydee, 17.

A member of Angeles’ family suffers from a genetic condition called brachymetatarsia, a toe deformity caused by a premature halt in bone growth.

“Being around them and hearing them complain that their feet hurt, seeing the sores on the legs from their physical actions (a deformed toe can cause chronic balance issues), that just leads me to do more research,” Haydee said.

For Amina, a junior at Marshall Fundamental, the flood of science teaching and experience will inform her fiction writing. It has also made her think of how this learning can be put to work to help her ailing mother, stricken with facet arthropathy, a degenerative arthritic condition affecting the facet joints of her thoracic spine. Facet joints connect the vertebrae in the back.

“Especially with the science in this field, it can help find something that cures mom,” Amina said. “That helps motivate me.”

The STEM classes ran for three hours each morning, with the virtual lessons supplemented by one hour of mentorship from undergraduate student teaching assistants and in-person visits for touring HMRI laboratories and sheep brain dissection.

The program is new, the students are eager and the instructors enthusiastic about welcoming their erstwhile successors.

“I had all this excitement to share,” said Vasudevan, who spoke to the students about her specialty, mental health. “I wasn’t sure if virtual lessons would really work, but I think they did.”

The mostly virtual instruction was a byproduct of COVID-19-required safety principles that Purcell hopes to do away with next year.

In the meantime, Vasudevan, who joined HMRI last year after 16 years at Harvard, said the metrics for measuring success remain the same: Do they graduate? Do they go onto higher studies?

The way an experienced teacher identifies promising students is also unchanged.

“In every classroom, you can see people with different intuitive abilities,” Vasudevan said. “Out of 40 people, there may be two or three who have the talent and intuition and awareness to learn one particular subject. If we discover scientific talent and curiosity in people early on, we should nurture it.

“In high school, it’s about streamlining that talent; they’re trying to find their way, and sometimes they don’t know how. In STEM, you see the faces light up and you know when it connects with them.”

For the students, the exposure was revelatory, not just for the experience of creating DNA from strawberries or handling loaded pipettes but for the interaction with the HMRI researchers.

There were life lessons as well as science instruction.

The success rate for experiments, for example, is 2%. “You have to be humble,” Purcell said. “You have to be able to live with failure. Ninety-eight percent of science is failure. It’s that 2% that gets us going.”

Fonseca passed this information on, via her own hard-won experience.

“When you’re in high school, you see all of these subjects and it’s easy to say, ‘This is what I want to do,’” she said. “But it’s hard to characterize the hardships of a career in medicine or science.

“A big part of this program gives them a firsthand view of what graduate school and passing medical boards is like. They walk away not just with experience but with the tools that they will use in their junior and senior years, and possibly even college, because they have a more advanced understanding of science.”

So, there are two strands to the STEM program.

One is pure instruction, which left students like Arleth and Haydee feeling like they had a running start at this year’s classes, thanks to their newfound knowledge of scientific terms. For her part, Amina believed the experience would help in her AP Seminar Research classes, with their emphasis on critical thinking, research and collaboration.

The other was the invaluable gift of mentorship and guidance from established scientists, biomedical researchers and teachers. It was adult education in its purest form, although not necessarily to be found in a textbook.

An unexpected byproduct of the ongoing waves of COVID-19 outbreaks and shutdowns is the appreciation of mental health. This was also addressed by Purcell, among others, as they described the stresses of this particular career path.

“You need to find a coping mechanism,” she said. “The major part of your life is going to be stressful. You need to learn how to cope with failure. If you aren’t a person who does well with that, you have to learn to overcome it.”

Later, almost as an aside, she added, “It’s not just book learning.”