Honoring Catalysts For Girls’ Science Education

In the 1960s, there weren’t many role models a little black girl interested in science could relate to. As a child, Evelynn Hammonds, who would become the first black female Dean of Harvard College, looked up to the Lt. Uhura character from Star Trek. Today’s generation, said the dean, will have slightly more realistic women to imitate, thanks in no small part to organizations like the Science Club for Girls.

SCFG, an after-school mentoring program for K-12 girls that emphasizes science education, holds a special place in Xconomy’s heart—indeed, we chose the organization as one of the beneficiaries of this our second annual Battle of the Tech Bands in January. So I was excited to attend SCFG’s Catalyst Awards ceremony at the Broad Institute in Cambridge last night, which coincided with the organization’s 15-year anniversary. Formed in Cambridge at the King Open School, with an initial class of 16, the program has ballooned into a network of science clubs in Cambridge, Boston, and Newton, with over 400 girls presently enrolled.

Hammonds and Larisa Schelkin received Catalyst Awards for their work promoting the involvement of underrepresented groups in science. Hammonds was cited for her accomplishments at Harvard and at MIT, where she founded the Center for Study of Diversity in Science, Technology and Medicine. Schelkin is the CEO and co-founder of the Diversity Outreach in Math and Engineering (DOME) Foundation, which promotes math and science education for minority groups.

H. Kim Bottomly, immunobiologist and president of Wellesley College, delivered the opening remarks. She reflected on how fortunate she was to have an advisor in her college years that accepted female PhD students. “Back then, talent and passion weren’t enough” to succeed in science, she said. “You also needed to be lucky. Well, women should not have to depend on luck”.

In the reception before the awards, fourth-graders Jackie Park and Carmen De Benedictis were demonstrating one of the engineering experiments they performed at the club— six cylindrical pillars made from tightly wound index cards, each having a circumference a little bigger than a quarter. Park explained how the distribution of pressure points allowed the pillars to support a heavy book, and even a person standing on top of that book. Park said she likes science because “it answers all our questions” and “is really cool” to boot.

The speakers made clear that the mission of Science Club for Girls is larger than simply preparing women for careers in the lab. Bottomly reminded the audience that science was served not only by the academics, but by “lawyers, lobbyists, and writers”. Hammonds echoed the sentiment, telling the girls in attendance that even if they did not become scientists themselves, they should strive always to be “champions of science.”

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