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More than Lab Coats and Test Tubes: A URM STEM Student's take on URM focused research

In perhaps living up to the idea of being a STEM student, writing is not my forte. I often overthink what to share and how to make it sound professional. There’s something permanent about seeing the words on paper that aren’t there when having a conversation. If I take nothing else away from working as part of this team, I will have more confidence in my writing. Or to at least be happy with a rustic draft.

Sometimes that means turning on speech to text and just talking at my computer or turning a bulleted list into a paragraph that vaguely reads like proper English. It helps when everyone else on the team also waits until the last minute to get things done; a reminder that even with years of experience, things don’t always get easier. There is this bonding moment when everyone is documenting their writing process at 11 PM, a sense of community in sitting down at the same time miles apart to work on the same thing.

A sense of community is probably what makes being a part of this team so important. Beyond the amazing people I’ve gotten to know over the past few months (they’re still cool even when they try to argue that cereal is a soup), there is that hope that the work we are doing will impact others. The human-centered approach to STEM that I’ve seen on this project is radically different from the STEM research I thought I would be doing. I have to admit, when I think of STEM research, the first thing that comes to mind is someone in a lab coat and goggles standing over test tubes and carefully watching chemicals mix together. It seemed like something cold and lonely; I could not understand why people were excited to do it.

I’ve since learned that research is also interviewing people, talking to them, and getting to hear their stories. Stories that resonate with me even when I have never stepped foot in Illinois. In one of our interviews with ILSPRA staff, the interviewee spoke about a program to get STEM students comfortable with writing, and I was ready to ask her if I could attend the workshops. The conversation also evolved into how the interviewee was doing all that she could to support her students. As a current undergraduate navigating the pandemic, it was awe-inspiring to see that there were people in the institutional hierarchy that were doing all they could to lessen the burden. It is all too easy to forget the real people trying to make things safe when most communications occur through a toneless, generic email that leaves more questions than answers.

Before joining this team, I had spent years working as a mentor for URM applying to college but had no idea that I could help them in a STEM capacity. Working with a team that conducts interviews and works with students to learn about their STEM journey opened my eyes to the possibility that research was not just sitting in a lab. It is rewarding being able to look at something that is currently affecting millions of URM students and feel as if you’ve done something that will make a difference.

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