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Kaelyn Brown (Neuro ‘21) and Ashley Cooper (Neuro & Anthro ‘21) Honored for their Work with Science Club for Girls

Kaelyn Brown (Neuro ‘21) and Ashley Cooper (Neuro & Anthro ‘21) Honored for their Work with Science Club for Girls

Neuroscience concentrators Kaelyn Brown (’21) and Ashley Cooper (’21), who has a joint concentration in anthropology, will receive the 2020 Catalyst Award from the educational outreach organization Science Club for Girls (SCFG) in recognition of their efforts as co-presidents of the Harvard SCFG chapter. A virtual celebration and awards ceremony took place last week.

Established in 1994, SCFG is a nonprofit that organizes after-school programs where K-12 students, who are often from communities that are underrepresented in STEM, participate in science activities under the guidance of college student Mentors.

“The idea of representation is really visceral and felt at Science Club for Girls,” Cooper says. “I think it’s vastly important to see yourself represented…And I know, for me, personally, as a Black woman, seeing other Black scientists is really important.”

Although SCFG has Cambridge roots, the Harvard chapter went on hiatus in spring 2018, when the national organization decided to pause its activities—until Brown and Cooper reestablished the chapter in fall 2019.

Science education outreach has been a priority for both Cooper and Brown since they were K-12 students.

Cooper was president of the Women in Science club at her high school in New Jersey, where she led after-school programs teaching younger girls how to code and do scientific experiments. When she arrived at Harvard, she wanted to continue STEM outreach, which led her to SCFG. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve made since coming here,” Cooper says.

She plans to become a physician-social scientist championing increased accessibility for Black mental healthcare. Cooper has been proud and honored to see the students she mentored as second and third graders develop and become emboldened through the SCFG program as fourth and fifth graders.

Brown, who grew up near Boston, has been in SCFG since she was six years old. Her family first heard about the program through a friend from church. “Without the program, I don’t know–maybe I would be a scientist, but it’s a lot less likely,” she says. “I feel as though Science Club for Girls has done an excellent job giving me a supporting and nurturing community…Just knowing that there’s a community of people who have similar interests…who look like me, has been an amazing thing.”

Some of her favorite SCFG memories include dissecting a cow’s heart and one impactful afternoon when the guest speaker was a neurosurgeon. Brown recalls, “She said, ‘Hi, I’m a neurosurgeon!’ and after she presented her talk about what she does in her lab, I was like, ‘I wanna do that!’”

Becoming a neurosurgeon remains Brown’s goal. After K-8, she continued in SCFG to become a Junior Mentor as a high school student, and then a senior Mentor as a Harvard student.

When SCFG went on hiatus in spring 2018, Brown and Cooper took action. Starting that summer and continuing through fall 2019, they reached out to SCFG’s nonprofit leadership and recruited other undergrads as Mentors. They rekindled the Harvard chapter’s previous collaboration with Amigos School, a dual-language immersion school near Central Square, and began hosting activities at King Open School, which is near Inman Square in Somerville. Both schools are part of the Cambridge Public School system.

When the spring semester started, the Harvard-led after-school programs were going well. SCFG’s leadership was so impressed that they decided to bestow the organization’s highest honor—the SCFG Catalyst Award, which recognizes volunteers for superlative efforts in promoting STEM education and inclusion–on Cooper and Brown.

Brown and Cooper first heard about their award while they were at Amigos School wrapping up an activity.SCFG’s executive director Bonnie Bertolaet (Organic Chemistry PhD ‘92, Knowles Lab) walked in. Cooper and Brown didn’t recognize Bertolaet at first, but Bertolaet introduced herself and told them they had been chosen to receive the Catalyst Award.

The Neuroscience concentrators were floored, because they knew the roster of previous SCFG Catalyst Award recipients. “They’re usually professionals who have done really amazing work for empowering women and young girls,” Cooper explains. “It’s so amazing and incredibly validating to see that they view us in that same light.”

But more challenges were imminent. The COVID-19 pandemic reached Boston in early March, forcing labs and schools to shut down in-person operations. Brown and Cooper both relocated to their families’ homes.

The months that followed were challenging ones. SCFG pivoted to hosting virtual experiment activities, while the Junior Mentors, college Mentors, and 6th-8th grade students in STEMinista clubs continued to meet online.

For Cooper, the continued connection to her mentees was a lifeline.“The mentoring experience has been one filled with such reciprocity,” she says. “My mentees have given me back my own voice, and have taught me to keep holding onto resilience, even when I don’t believe it was possible. This is a skill and gift I will carry with me for the remainder of my life. Even during this summer, which has been the most trying time in my life, Science Club for Girls has been such a supportive and essential community for me.”

Starting in early October, SCFG will host an 8-week series of virtual clubs, which will be open to students across the country and internationally. Volunteers have also been producing a weekly science show that airs on Facebook Live and recording videos for students to watch later on their own schedules. Mentoring events will also continue online.

“I actually see this as such a perfect and metaphorical embodiment of all that Science Club has given to me: an unwavering spirit of resilience,” Cooper says. “Though we are now exploring unforeseen territory by employing virtual Mentoring, I believe this will also provide unprecedented opportunities for expansion and growth. Our clubs may now be able to reach a wider variety of students.”

Despite going virtual, SCFG still needs scientist volunteers who can become Mentors, give mini-guest talks, or appear on virtual panel discussions. MCB scientists who are interested in volunteering should reach out to Brown or Cooper.

Brown and Cooper add that it’s especially valuable for girls to hear from scientists of color and women in STEM. “I think that the recent instances of anti-Black violence and the racial reckoning that our country now faces has really emphasized that access matters,” says Brown. “Inequality and oppression remains entrenched in our country today and perpetuates many of the disparities and injustices we see today. Programs such as SCFG give girls access to amazing opportunities and push back against the narrative that women/women of color don’t belong in STEM. SCFG gives our girls the precious opportunity to see their unending potential, and I think that SCFG’s message is more pertinent now than ever before.”

The Catalyst Awards ceremony honoring Brown, Cooper, and other SCFG volunteers took place on Thursday via the OneCause platform. Congratulations to Kaelyn and Ashley!

by Diana Crow