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Inspiring a New Generation of Innovators

Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young is a Senior Policy Analyst at OSTP and Director of the Office of the Chief Scientist at the United States Department of Agriculture. She took time out of her busy schedule to write a short personal story of how she became interested in science, the path she took to her professional career, and the importance of inspiring others to do the same.

[Ed. Note: Last night two young women sat with First Lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union Address, representing President Obama’s commitment to science, engineering, and mathematics education. Li Boynton, an 18-year-old senior from Bellaire, Texas, was a winner of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last year for developing a new and potentially ground-breaking method for testing the quality of drinking water, an accomplishment that could someday help the one billion people around the world who lack access to safe drinking water. And Gabriela Farfan, a 19-year old Stanford University freshman from Madison, Wisconsin, won one of the top awards in the Intel Science Talent Search for her independent research describing why certain gemstones appear to change color when viewed from different angles, work that has potential applications in nanotechnology and materials science.

The President has spoken repeatedly about the importance not only of inspiring more students to excel in science, engineering and mathematics, but in particular the importance of attracting girls, minorities, and other groups underrepresented in these fields. Here we share a blog post from one of our soldiers in the effort to bring more students like Li and Gabriela into these fields, which are so important to the Nation’s future.

Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young is a Senior Policy Analyst at OSTP and Director of the Office of the Chief Scientist at the United States Department of Agriculture. She took time out of her busy schedule to write a short personal story of how she became interested in science, the path she took to her professional career, and the importance of inspiring others to do the same.]

Not long ago I had the opportunity to spend the day with Mrs. Fairbairn, a sixth grade science teacher, and her students at the Montgomery County Upcounty Center for the Highly Gifted. While preparing the comments that I would share with students throughout the day, I thought a lot about what tools were most influential in my decision to select a career in science and what I could relate that would benefit adolescents most at this stage in their journey.

This was not an easy task. I thought about describing the excitement I still feel as I explore my area of study—agricultural science and its links to climate change, food safety, bioenergy, food security, and nutrition and obesity. Or the thrill—and the frustrations—of helping to craft science and technology policy in Washington. But ultimately I decided to talk with the students about a few things I thought might help them the most in the long run: leadership, skill development, the importance of science and technology in securing America’s future, the value of obtaining a quality education, and the role they could someday play in advancing innovation and discovery. That’s all!

A lot of our discussion had to do with the ways that those who have made progress in the sciences and engineering can help others who are just getting started. One particularly interesting discussion focused on the importance of public speaking. I attempted to assure the students—many of whom expressed real discomfort with the prospect of presenting before an audience—that they would become more comfortable with practice. I also shared with the class my first experience in a formal leadership role, as president of the Junior Beta Club in seventh grade. Much to my dismay, the role required me to deliver an acceptance speech in front of the entire school. To this day I have a copy of the speech that my mother helped me prepare on the old typewriter. She strategically placed the word “pause” in parentheses throughout the document to remind me to add dramatic effect. I must have practiced that five-minute speech 100 times. Luckily today I don’t require as much coaching from my mom to give an oral presentation, but I do still visualize the “pauses” in my mind! And while some of the students I spoke to seemed to believe me that such presentations can be fun, I suspect that most would still choose a trip to the dentist over a public speaking engagement.

The students I met with are so fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in an amazing program that challenges them in science, math, computer technology, and the humanities. These types of programs did not exist 40 years ago in Augusta, Georgia, where I received my early education. Looking back, I realize that what I did have was a very diverse cadre of teachers and community leaders who saw potential in a young girl and frequently selected me for leadership roles and opportunities.

One of those opportunities included participation in the Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering (SECME) program in high school. SECME’s mission is to increase the pool of historically underrepresented and under-served students by preparing them to enter and complete post-secondary studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), with the overarching goal of creating a more diverse and globally competitive workforce. Participation in the program included a visit to the Georgia Institute of Technology campus to meet professors and students of color working in the field of engineering. The program curricula and the role models provided by the program were instrumental in my deciding to pursue a career in engineering. I would later return to the Georgia Tech campus to do graduate work in paper science and technology, ultimately earning a doctoral degree from North Carolina State University and becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Paper Science and Engineering.

In 2002, I was featured in a book, “Black Stars: African American Women Scientists and Inventors,” which features African American Women who have made important contributions to science. At that time less than 5% of all science and engineering professionals were African American. The book was written for students, teachers, and people of all races to encourage youth of all backgrounds to achieve their potential. Since then I have enjoyed various measures of professional recognition, but the most rewarding outcomes have been my personal communications with young people across the nation. I sincerely hope that my time spent mentoring and visiting classrooms will be instrumental in opening the realm of possibilities for other students.

My efforts to help students realize their fullest potential reflect the support I received from the amazing role models in my life. Providing a challenge to children to think about the unsolved scientific problems that exist in our world, and pushing members of the next generation to dedicate themselves to working hard to solve those problems, is something we all should take very seriously. It is a simple yet significant way to make a difference.

In my last class of the day at the Upcounty Center, one of the students asked me if I felt that I had made a difference. I thought it was ironic that she would ask that question with those exact words because I often give a speech entitled, “Making A Difference.” The talk shares with undergraduate and graduate students why I chose to become a scientist and the decisions I made along the way. I became a scientist because I wanted to make a difference, and I feel very fortunate to be able to say that I sincerely believe that I am doing so—through my work as a practicing scientist, through the support I have provided to other scientists across the country by helping to administer federal competitive research programs, and through the time I spend with the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs who—like me a few decades ago—just need a little outside inspiration to start their journey to changing the world.