Bridging the Gap: Promoting diversity and inclusion in the next generation of STEMM leaders

STEMM demo

A high school student volunteer assists kindergarteners in collecting bacteria samples for a STEMM activity.

When Danny Thomas founded St. Jude, he promised to care for children regardless of race, creed or socioeconomic status. Just as St. Jude is committed to treating these diverse populations, so is the institution committed to increasing diversity within the teams making the discoveries that lead to novel treatments.

Studies suggest that a lack of access and opportunity drive the underrepresentation of certain populations in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) careers. Barriers to employment in STEMM can include a lack of access to in-school and out-of-school STEMM programming and STEMM mentors.  

Through innovative programming and community engagement, St. Jude is expanding access and opportunities for populations typically underrepresented in STEMM. These programs aim to show students how they can use STEMM as a tool to care for the well-being of others and their communities. This aligns with the mission of St. Jude, where researchers and physicians use STEMM as a tool to advance cures and means of prevention for children with catastrophic diseases.

Meeting potential scientists where they are

The STEMM Education and Outreach team at St. Jude is leading efforts to inspire K-12 students to consider and pursue careers in scientific research. Under the direction of Kate Ayers, the team adapts learning activities to explain how St. Jude leverages STEMM expertise to develop treatments for children with catastrophic diseases to a level appropriate for school-age individuals. The programs St. Jude has built generate awareness and foster future workforce development.

“I love to see the spark in young children when they are exposed to science and discovery,” Ayers says. “One day I imagine some of these elementary and middle school students we work with will be scientists and doctors here at St. Jude.”

Ayers’ team works in partnership with local schools to enhance their science education programs, dispel insecurities related to the intimidating nature of science and enhance the confidence of local educators to foster scientific curiosity in their students. Relationships are cultivated over months, even years, with a genuine commitment to understanding the unique needs of children in particular communities.

For example, the STEMM Education and Outreach team worked with school administrators and science educators to design and plan an afterschool STEMM club for fifth-grade students in the Memphis community. The club engages students in an engineering design challenge where they learn how to build a prosthetic limb for a patient with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Because the program was designed for a specific community, it was set up to help overcome barriers that might keep students from participating. For example, since many families lack access to reliable transportation, they hosted the program in the schools and offered it free of charge. They also translated parent communications to Spanish in schools serving Hispanic communities. Efforts such as these connect children to real science and scientists that they might not otherwise get as a part of their standard education.

Mentorship removes barriers

While access and opportunity are vital, an equally impactful consideration is the presence — or absence — of mentorship. Through programs initiated by St. Jude, children are not only exposed to high-quality science but also the scientists leading discoveries. With careful consideration to represent the full spectrum of diversity in the St. Jude research enterprise, STEMM program mentors help to disrupt misconceptions about who can be a scientist or who will bring valuable ideas to the lab bench.

“The experience was also great and fulfilling for the mentor, not just the students. It was an excellent opportunity to learn more about yourself,” Ayers said.

While Ayers notes that it’s important to remember not every school is created equal, the STEMM education and mentorship programs her team orchestrates aim to elevate the playing field for all students.

“My experiences guided how I think about the importance of STEMM education and outreach work,” Ayers said. “What does a true commitment to equity look like, and what is our role in enhancing these efforts?”

St. Jude has long recognized that diversity in perspective, experience and background enriches the research enterprise and promotes innovation from the lab to the clinic. By partnering with the community to inspire the next generation of scientists, St. Jude is working to promote diversity and inclusion in the STEMM workforce.

Learn more about the Cancer Education and Outreach Program

About the author

Kate Ayers, MS, is the manager of the Cancer Education Program within the Comprehensive Cancer Center at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
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