Mentorship program supports high school girls’ pursuit of ocean careers

Ten female high school students from Kaua‘i, Lāna‘i, and O‘ahu spent three days and two nights on Moku O Lo‘e (Coconut Island) under the mentorship of female researchers, graduate students, and staff at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa. The program was created to provide opportunities and support for female students who are interested in pursuing a career in science but may be discouraged due to financial or other obstacles.

The Marine Molecular Mentorship Program was led by HIMB’s Coral Resilience Lab (CRL) and hosted high school sophomores and juniors from Lāna‘i High School, Kaua‘i High School, Island School (Kaua‘i), Farrington High School, Kailua High School, University Laboratory School, Kamehameha, and ‘Iolani at no cost to the students. Each day, the students explored a different topic in marine science and participated in hands-on research, field experiences and storytelling sessions with their mentors.

“This mentorship program has been the best experience in my life so far,” said one student. “I am so grateful for the kind and warm hospitality from the mentors, as well as having an environment to be myself surrounded by other amazing people interested in STEM. I will forever remember this experience.”

See it to be it

Eva Majerova, a postdoctoral researcher with the CRL, was part of a similar program during her doctoral studies in Europe. She brought the idea to HIMB where she and Madeleine Sherman, CRL project manager, adapted it for Hawai‘i students and facilities at HIMB in the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

“The idea is to support female high school girls that are interested in pursuing a career in STEM but feel various obstacles in their life and are thus deliberating whether it is the right path for them,” said Majerova. “Young women can be discouraged about becoming scientists by their peers, by the lack of financial resources or a number of other factors. Although these problems are not unique for one gender, it is well documented that they affect women—and women from underrepresented groups, in particular—more than men.”

“Our goal is to provide a secure platform for these young women where they can explore what life as a woman in STEM in different life/work stages is about and learn how to get there and what to expect in those careers,” said Sherman. “We want to encourage these ladies in choosing the right life path for them as they feel it. We are not pushing them into becoming scientists, we only give them the opportunity to see and understand what their options are.”

Authentic research experiences, many firsts

During the program, the students visited several HIMB labs and participated in a variety of research-related experiences. They pipetted samples in a molecular lab that focuses on coral response to environmental stressors, fragmented corals, viewed live corals under a confocal microscope, examined reef structure complexity, experienced the reefs up close on snorkel while performing coral reef ecology surveys, and worked in a local wetland to incorporate the importance of mauka to makai (mountain to sea) connections. 

“The most rewarding part of this program was hearing that we helped our mentees learn many new things, make meaningful connections with other girls in the same situation, and that we might have encouraged at least some of them to follow their dreams,” said Majerova. “It was also thrilling to be a part of so many ‘firsts’ for some of the girls—their first boat ride, first traveling to O‘ahu, first time attending a workshop like this, first time seeing a shark, or first time swimming or snorkeling.”

“We saw increased confidence among the participants from just three intensive days here,” said Sherman. “We witnessed their ability to set their mind to a task they may not have thought was achievable and surprise themselves with their accomplishment. A few girls even mentioned this solidified their interest in marine science and were going to pursue it no matter what it takes.”

In addition to Majerova and Sherman, the following mentors participated in the program: Ku‘ulei Rogers, principal investigator of the Coral Reef Ecology Lab; Marion Chapeau, lab manager, and Mollie Asbury, doctoral candidate in the Geometric Ecology Lab; research coordinator Shimi Rii and graduate students Casey Ching and Claire Atkins from He‘eia NERR; and Kira Hughes, managing director of the CRL.

Looking to the future

The recent MMMP and an upcoming summer session open to girls from Hawai‘i Island and Maui are supported by a National Science Foundation award to Majerova and CRL principal investigator Crawford Drury. The MMMP team aims to secure additional funding to host the program twice a year moving forward, once in October during fall break and once in the summer.

Student participants will be given surveys one month post-program, and 6 months post-program to assess their gained level of confidence and determine what else they are getting out of the program. Along with these surveys, communication with the students and mentorship is continued after the end of the program.

“We are providing this opportunity in hopes to increase female representation and other underrepresented communities in STEM, remove financial barriers to entry in science, and give young girls increased awareness of their potential,” said Sherman.

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