This is part of a Cool Jobs series on the value of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.
Jobs in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — pay well compared to many fields. However, plenty of kids lack the training they need to qualify for such jobs. Some don’t get the foundation to succeed in the high school and college classes they will need. They may even lack an understanding of how to study effectively or how to qualify for low-cost or no-cost help.
Here, researchers offer advice on how they succeeded, against all odds, to find rewarding careers in science and tech. Many had to overcome poverty, family troubles or ignorance about how to prepare. It may just take some extra grit — that stick-to-it attitude.
Science News for Students asked them to offer tips from what they learned. Here’s what they recommend.
1. Ask for help. “Having to swallow your pride and asking other people for help is kind of a lifelong lesson,” says Kelly Chavez. She’s a biomedical scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “If you don’t think to ask, you’ll never know what a treasure trove of information other people have” and may be happy to provide to you.
2. Develop strong study skills. “We all learn in different says,” notes Laura Martinez. She’s a microbiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Try to understand what works best for you,” she says. And seek out tutoring if you’re still struggling.
3. Explore your options. Look into different STEM fields, and learn what choices are out there. If college sounds too expensive, do your homework. Find out about financial-aid options. Afterward, “talk to people and get their experiences,” says Ashley McCormack. It worked for this molecular biologist. Today she’s a scientist with a government contractor at the National Institutes of Health in Rockville, Md.
4. Find your cheering section. “Seek help if you feel like nobody supports you at home,” says Omar Villanueva. He’s a chemistry professor at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville. Your cheering section can be friends, a teacher or others, he notes. Everyone needs someone who can be there for them in good times and bad.
5. Seek out mentors. Don’t be shy about asking adults to share insights and guidance as you work toward a STEM career. “Lots of people like giving advice,” says Esteban Burchard. He’s a lung doctor and asthma researcher at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). It’s great if you have role models that look like you. However, he adds, great guidance may also come from people who aren’t like you at all.
6. Take the initiative. Look for chances to work in labs or join research teams. You can gain experience beyond the classroom. You can earn some extra money, too. Some students start this when they’re in high school. Others work (often for pay) in research labs while they’re a college student. “Don’t wait for an opportunity,” says Tracie Delgado. “Create it!” That’s what this microbiologist did. And she now works at Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash.
7. Accept responsibility. Yes, poverty presents lots of problems, but you always have a choice, says Emmitt Jolly. He’s a molecular biologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. When you make a choice, he says, accept the results and be willing to deal with them.
8. Don’t be afraid of failure. Many things you try won’t work, and some people won’t accept you. That’s not the end of the world. Just dust yourself off and move on, Chavez says. Indeed, most people learn more from failure than from getting something right on the first try. So learn from those mistakes.
9. Be bold. “Don’t shy away from something just because it might be too much work, or you’re uncertain you’ll succeed,” says Abel Chávez. He’s a civil and environmental engineer at Western Colorado University in Gunnison. “Give it a shot,” he says. “See what happens.”
10. Work hard. Diogenes Placencia is a research chemist for the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. If he could go back and tell himself something, it would be this: “Keep your head down, work as hard as you can, and everything is going to be all right.”
And a bonus: Accept yourself for who you are. It's no fun to not have money. Yet you can celebrate good things about your background. Geoffrey Manley dropped out of high school in Kentucky and worked as an auto mechanic to help support his single mom and younger brother. After talks with a customer who taught at the University of Kentucky, Manley went back to school and eventually became a brain surgeon. He now heads up the neurosurgery departments at UCSF and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. Today, he values his roots back in Kentucky. “We had our own dialect. We had our own music,” he says. “It’s a very, very special place to be from, and it’s made me what I am now.”
asthma A disease affecting the body’s airways, which are the tubes through which animals breathe. Asthma obstructs these airways through swelling, the production of too much mucus or a tightening of the tubes. As a result, the body can expand to breathe in air, but loses the ability to exhale appropriately. The most common cause of asthma is an allergy. Asthma is a leading cause of hospitalization and the top chronic disease responsible for kids missing school.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
biomedical Having to do with medicine and how it interacts with cells or tissues.
chemistry The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances.
dialect A form of language or pattern of communication that is distinct to a specific place or a social group.
engineer A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.
engineering The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.
environmental engineer A person who uses science to study and improve the natural environment.
field An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.
grit (in psychology) Passion and perseverance for long-term goals.
high school A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.
insight The ability to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a situation just by thinking about it, instead of working out a solution through experimentation.
mentor An individual who lends his or her experience to advise someone starting out in a field. In science, teachers or researchers often mentor students or younger scientists by helping them to refine their research questions. Mentors also can offer feedback on how young investigators prepare to conduct research or interpret their data.
microbiology The study of microorganisms, principally bacteria, fungi and viruses. Scientists who study microbes and the infections they can cause or ways that they can interact with their environment are known as microbiologists.
model A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to predict one or more likely outcomes. Or an individual that is meant to display how something would work in or look on others.
National Institutes of Health (or NIH) This is the largest biomedical research organization in the world. A part of the U.S. government, it consists of 21 separate institutes — such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute — and six additional centers. Most are located on a 300 acre facility in Bethesda, Md., a campus containing 75 buildings. The institutes employ nearly 6,000 scientists and provide research funding to more than 300,000 additional researchers working at more than 2,500 other institutions around the world.
STEM An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
trauma (in medicine) An injury, often a fairly severe one. This term also can refer to a severely disturbing incident (such as witnessing a battlefield death) or memory.
trove A collection of valuable things.