Assistant Professor of Biology Marc Edwards remembers the exact moment he developed a taste for science. He was in his seventh-grade science class, and had been caught sipping a hidden milkshake via a straw sticking through a hole in his desk. Instead of disciplining him in a more conventional way, his teacher called Edwards to the front of the room, taught the class about the molecular composition of the drink and then ordered the 12-year-old to write a 30-page paper explaining it.
“The more I learned, the more fascinated I became,” says Edwards, who was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago. “From that day on, I knew I wanted to be a scientist and teacher, and that led me to academia.”
But as he enrolled in more advanced science courses, he noticed something: He was seeing fewer and fewer professors and classmates of color. He was fortunate to be advised and guided by caring faculty members of color during the four years he spent as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, he says, and he experienced firsthand the impact that mentoring can have on a scientist in the early stages of a career.
Fast forward to an Amherst faculty orientation event in 2018, where Edwards met Assistant Professor of Chemistry Chris Durr. The pair discovered that they have a shared interest in diversifying the ranks of faculty members and researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and hoped they would be able to contribute to that effort at Amherst. Together they hatched what they call the Incubator project, a skills-development program aimed at recruiting and retaining STEM students who are the first in their families to attend college, people of color and/or from low-income backgrounds. After asking Assistant Professor of Statistics Brittney Bailey to participate—she jumped at the chance, she says—they rolled up their sleeves and started planning.
This summer, 18 rising sophomores participated in a six-week pilot of the project, which tapped into the resources of several Amherst offices, including the Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning, the Writing Center, the Library, Academic Technology Services, and the Center for Teaching and Learning. Via Zoom and other methods, participants studied recent advances in biotechnology, statistics and chemistry, and learned about scientific ethics, data visualization, formulating research proposals, cover-letter writing and more. Bailey, Durr and Edwards provided one-on-one mentoring, and alumni offered networking opportunities.
“We wanted to engage students in this early on in their careers, and to provide them with a cohort of classmates with whom they can share experiences and move through their college years together,” Durr says. “There is real power in creating that kind of close community.”
The Incubator also enabled participants to create their own individual development plans for the future—even if the future doesn’t involve science or research. “We wanted to teach them that there’s no such thing as failing when it comes to their life plans,” Bailey explains. “The program was, of course, about research and technical skills. But it was more about the students—helping them get to where they belong, and find others to support them along the way.”
It helped me build my confidence in how I can become successful in whatever path I choose in the STEM fields.” —Maria Andrade ’23
Maria Andrade ’23, for one, feared that remote participation (forced by COVID-19) would hinder relationship-building and prevent her from finding a support group like the one Bailey describes. “That was far from the truth,” she says. “The reality was that the community I established with the instructors and my peers was unmatched. I had never been in an environment where everyone shared the aspirations I have and my fiery passion for STEM.”
She gained knowledge about previously unfamiliar concepts in chemistry, biology and statistics, and about numerous career options. “By far, though,” she says, “I believe the most important part of the Incubator program was how it helped me build my confidence in how I can become successful in whatever path I choose in the STEM fields.”
Durr had taught almost all of the 18 students in his “Chemical Principles” course last spring, and says he noticed a marked increase in confidence during a virtual reunion they held on Sept. 19. “Seeing how self-assured they had become, observing the camaraderie and support they had for each other—it was remarkable,” he notes. “I think it really transformed who they think they can be.”
That kind of growth is exactly why Edwards started the program. “I had great mentors who taught me what it means to be a good scientist and how to build a team,” he says. “As someone who benefited so much from that guidance, I think it is important provide to lasting support for those who come after me. This program is a way of paying it forward.”