Student organization nurtures a love of science

School of Pharmacy student Brittany Speed instructs one of the Girl Scouts on how to prepare an ibuprofen gel. Photo by Rita Shiang, Ph.D.

Pictured above: School of Pharmacy student Brittany Speed instructs one of the Girl Scouts on how to prepare an ibuprofen gel. Photo by Rita Shiang, Ph.D.

While learning skills to advance their careers, the members of the graduate student organization Women in Science at Virginia Commonwealth University are also paying it forward and guiding the next generation of students toward vocations in health care professions, biomedical research, engineering and other sciences.

For the ninth year, the group hosted its Girl Scout Medical Sciences Career Day this spring, offering middle-school girls the opportunity for hands-on learning and mentoring by graduate students who were in their shoes not that long ago.

Girl Scouts prepare to dissect the brain of a mouse and identify different regions of the brain using color-coded maps. Photo by Elizabeth Do.

Girl Scouts prepare to dissect the brain of a mouse and identify different regions of the brain using color-coded maps. Photo by Elizabeth Do.

The day’s organizers say the reward of seeing young students exploring science was almost rivaled by the announcement that WIS won VCU’s Community Service Project Leadership and Service Award for the career-day project. This is the second time WIS received the award. The group previously won in 2013.

The ambitious project brings about 100 Girl Scouts and 40 adult chaperones to the MCV Campus for a day of science modules created to introduce the visitors to various aspects of scientific career options.

“We do clinical lab sciences, pathology, forensic science, human genetics, pharmacy, nursing, engineering … and more,” said Elizabeth Do, a Ph.D. student in psychiatric and behavioral genetics in the School of Medicine and the outgoing president of WIS. “From the feedback we got, the girls especially like the hands-on activities.”

One favorite was learning to extract DNA from a strawberry. Rita Shiang, Ph.D., associate professor of human and molecular genetics, organized the activity and watched students marvel at the white cloud of DNA rising from the liquid extracted from a crushed berry in the bottom of the test tube. “It is a really neat thing,” said Shiang, who is a faculty adviser for WIS.

The day’s activities made a big impression. “It’s a hands-on experience that girls my age wouldn’t normally have. I loved being in a lab using test tubes,” said Hannah, a middle-school Girl Scout from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, who participated in the career day activities.

Jamie Sturgill introduced the idea of the career event when she was a member of the newly formed WIS in 2006. “As a Girl Scout myself, I can remember doing activities, hands-on things at a program at Marshall University in West Virginia. I started to reach out to Girl Scouts here and started laying groundwork.” Sturgill is now an assistant professor and director of biobehavioral laboratory services in the VCU School of Nursing.

In addition to helping the next generation of scientists find their calling, WIS also helps support education and promote the career development of its members both at the university and in the sciences.

During a pathology rotation, Girl Scouts (at right) learned to use a microscope to visually observe differences between healthy and unhealthy human cells while others (at left) looked at organs from patients with different conditions. Photo by Ayana Scott-Elliston.

During a pathology rotation, Girl Scouts (at right) learned to use a microscope to visually observe differences between healthy and unhealthy human cells while others (at left) looked at organs from patients with different conditions. Photo by Ayana Scott-Elliston.

The group was formed as an offshoot of VCU’s long-running Women in Science, Dentistry and Medicine Faculty Organization, said Jan Chlebowski, Ph.D., the medical school’s associate dean for graduate education and a faculty sponsor of WIS. “We basically just asked students, ‘Do you want to have an organization like this?’ and people stepped up to the plate.”

“It’s important,” said Sturgill, “because it’s easy to feel like you’re in a silo when you spend most of your time in a lab. The genesis of WIS was finding a way to foster career development and networking and all of these important things that are not necessarily learned on the bench.”

The focus of WIS, however, is not all on its members. Also important is a robust service aspect that includes supporting Toys for Tots, Cinderella Dreams and the local food bank, as well as the Girl Scouts, noted Chlebowski.

The chance to mentor young students one-on-one is a big draw. Anuya Paranjape, who plans to finish her Ph.D. later this year in microbiology and immunology in the School of Medicine, serves as one of the WIS vice presidents of community outreach. She said she was impressed when she first attended the Girl Scout career day and saw its effect on students.

“I would have loved to do something like this when I was younger.”