On a chilly Thursday in late November, Loyola’s Women in Science group teamed up with The American Heart Association in Chicago to cohost their Go Red Goes STEM event. Young women from area high schools spent the day at Northwestern University’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, where they joined up with graduate assistants in biomedical sciences for a breakout session, “Healthy Habits for a Healthy Heart.”
The room held about 7 graduate assistants, a few tables of high schoolers, and an entire flock of sheep hearts – over 2 dozen of them, more than one for each student. My MD/PhD candidate friend, Amanda, had meticulously sliced each sample to strategically showcase the anatomy. We distributed gloves, safety goggles, lab coats, hair ties, and hearts, and our future scientists were ready to learn.
Since Amanda and I are the cardiovascular pharmacologists of the bunch, we set out to explain the amazing organ that powers our entire circulatory system. The heart is divided into four chambers; two atria that pull blood into the heart, and two strong ventricles that push blood out of the heart.
We asked the students to pinch the thick, mighty walls of the left ventricle with their gloved hands. The left ventricle pumps oxygenated blood – about 5 liters of it – to the entire body. If an insult to the left ventricle thins or scars that muscle tissue, the heart can’t work as well as it should. We then called on the class to trace the left anterior descending coronary artery, which feeds the heart with its own supply of fresh blood. Imagine, we quizzed them, what might happen when that blood supply is blocked in a heart attack.
As the young women held the hearts in front of them, turning them around and inspecting every angle, I circled the room to answer any questions about heart anatomy. The etymology associated with the coronary artery calls to mind how it wraps around the heart like a crown decorates the head of a queen. I wished I could tell every young woman in that room that she can be like a queen, too – a powerful, strong, intelligent, leader of her generation.
I navigated Twitter that evening by the event’s dedicated hashtag and discovered a wave of tweets about “girl power,” mentions of women in medicine, photos of our session, and a sprinkling of scientist emoji. Though the event was over, I felt hopeful that the students would carry the day’s enthusiasm for science with them into the world.
In the following weeks, I found myself wondering about our next generation of scientists in the place where I do my deepest thinking: the aisles of Target. My mind wandered as I scanned the shelves. Did these young women have enough role models in our field when they were growing up? Were the toy manufacturers succeeding in making technological games gender-neutral? Were there were enough NASA tees in the girls’ section?
Our future female doctors and nurses, scientists and engineers are out there, and they are going to change the world someday. It’s my New Year’s wish that our community of early career professionals can help them to realize that passion for science and encourage them to pursue their dreams.
Annie Roessler is a PhD Candidate at Loyola University in Chicago, IL. Her research focuses on the neurobiology and molecular mechanisms of electrically-induced cardioprotection. She tweets @ThePilotStudy and blogs at flaskhalffull.com