Sandra Clinton is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and is also involved with a program called PROGRESS (Promoting Geoscience Research, Education and Success which provides mentoring and professional development to undergraduate women to prepare them for careers in the geosciences.

She recently shared her STEM journey with the team here at Out Teach.  

“I always enjoyed science, Biology and Math were two of my favorite topics, but I grew up in a time and place where there were not many hands-on STEM opportunities for children and teens. But one summer during high school, I worked at a Children’s Museum teaching science and it was really fun to do small experiments with the kids.  I especially loved teaching the astronomy show and making everyone’s hair stand up when they touched the Van De Graaff Generator.

But it wasn’t until I studied ecology in college, particularly freshwater ecology, that I knew I wanted a STEM career. I was lucky enough to get a job as field and laboratory technician at the Limnology Center and loved the hands-on experiences, such as when I got to go out on a lake and collect samples. The research side of science really appealed to me.

It wasn’t until I started working on my Master’s that I had a female science teacher. Dr. Nancy Grimm at Arizona State University was a great mentor both for learning how to ask scientific questions and collect high quality data.  More importantly, she was a role model for me to see that I could pursue a PhD and have a career as a university professor and researcher.  As the first in my family to go to college, I’d never really had an image in my head about what it would be like to be a woman in a STEM career.

Now, as a woman in science myself, I work to mentor many female students and work hard to support women so they stay in their degree programs and purse careers in science.

When I talk to women about pursuing a STEM career, I have a list of four points I want them to remember.

#1. There are a lot of options for careers in science.  The first step is figuring out what you like the most – astronomy, chemistry, ecology, etc.  And many of these sciences are interconnected. I am trained as an ecologist but also need to understand hydrology, soils, and chemistry to effectively do my research.  So learning one field of science does not prevent you from working in a different field.

#2. Sometimes learning science is hard but just because you get one bad grade doesn’t mean that career path isn’t right for you. For example, many students struggle in introductory chemistry or physics and you are not the only one. I really didn’t like undergraduate organic chemistry but fell in love with the topic during my PhD when I took a course where it directly related to my interests.

#3. Science comes in different forms.  I am field scientist, meaning I collect data from streams and rivers and analyze those samples in my lab. But you can study environmental science and never go out in the field if that is not your thing.  There are lab-based sciences, computer-based sciences etc.  You can also teach science, write about science or work to influence science policy.

#4.  Finally do not let anyone tell you cannot do this based on who you are, what you look like, or where you came from. We need a diversity of people in science to solve the problems that exist in this world (climate change, pollution, cancer research, access to green space).”

I believe strongly that women represent half the population in the United States should represent half the population of STEM fields.  Science is improved by diverse teams because they produce better ideas and raise the overall level of science.  Women bring unique perspectives to the workforce and their inclusion in STEM can help us move forward on critical research questions and problems.  I am proud of the many female students I have mentored and who are now working in a diversity of environmental positions.

Out Teach, formerly REAL School Gardens, provides professional development for elementary school teachers. Out Teach prepares them to use school gardens, outdoor classrooms, and green schoolyards to improve instruction through three-dimensional project-based learning, and outdoor experiential inquiry-based education. Professional learning with Out Teach improves hands-on science and STEM education through instructional coaching and digital education resources and improves 21st Century skills.