Participating in Science Outreach is a Win-Win For Everyone

Last month I wrote about the January is for Advocacy AHA initiative and discussed the importance of physicians and scientists getting involved in science advocacy. Since I mentioned I wanted this New Year’s resolution to stick, I am continuing this theme for February because there are so many different ways to get involved with our communities and advocate for change.

One way I personally enjoy engaging with my community is by participating in science outreach activities. Now, the best part about this type of extra-curricular community engagement is that it comes in a variety of different forms, whether it be judging a local science fair, visiting an elementary classroom to talk about your science and do an experiment (my favorite is isolating DNA from strawberries with them), or even Skyping with a classroom of students through the fantastic Skype A Scientist program (you don’t even have to leave work!).

Before I highlight a fantastic cardiology outreach program that just recently happened, I want to take a moment to discuss why science outreach programs are so critical for our both our local and scientific communities. We are all busy, so finding time to fit something like this into our schedules feels like a scary game of Tetris. However, science and particularly the cardiology field, has diversity/inclusivity issues that need attention. Even though this is an issue that some may feel like has “been addressed,” women still make up around only a third of scientific researchers across the world. While this varies across disciplines, only around 13% of cardiologists are women – even though roughly 50% of medical students are women. All of these numbers are even lower for people of color.

While I understand that these issues are insanely complex and speak to the need of a re-vamp of how our scientific and medical institutions are structured, we need to continue to flame the excitement for science in students of every background, gender and race. The easiest way to do this is by getting involved and not just in your neighborhood, but also underserved communities. I highlighted a variety of ways to get involved in science outreach in last month’s post. The STEM ecosystem is a particularly good resource for getting in contact with underserved communities you may have not been aware of before.

I mentioned before that I completely understand that getting involved or organizing a science outreach event feels overwhelming. However, working with other colleagues within your network who are also passionate about this issue is the key to really making an impact. Just like with everything else in science, you don’t have to do this alone!

This is exactly the approach Dr. Kathryn Berlacher and Diana Rodgers took to organize their recent She Looks Like A Cardiologist event last month in Pittsburgh. Both women took their passion for increasing the diversity in cardiology into creating a fantastic event where 28 female high school students interested in becoming cardiologists got to meet with local women in cardiology. The day was filled with a mix of lectures, group discussions and some simulation, as well as one-on-one lunch with paired mentors. The best part of this event is that it’s not over – the organizers didn’t want this to be a “one and done” day, so every girl got paired with one of the mentors who will help answer college application questions, advise on jobs and summer experiences, and just be a resource for them in the future. You can find a great breakdown of the day on Dr. Berlacher’s twitter page (@KBerlacher). Seeing this event on Twitter is actually what inspired me to write this blog post and I emailed Dr. Berlacher right away to talk about it. I asked her if she thinks outreach activities are valued within our field and I loved her response:

Definitely – many of my colleagues do it and love it. Almost all of my fellows do it. The fellows who came on Saturday raved about the event afterwards, saying they thought it was going to be a great event for the high school girls, but at the end of the day they felt inspired and invigorated too.  Things like this (and all our other volunteering), keeps us grounded and really provides perspective. I honestly think it’s a great way to bond – AND to combat burnout in the field, which is another hot topic. If you feel valued and feel that what you’re doing is making a difference, then you’re much less likely to get burnt out at your job.”

I hope this event inspires you to get involved in science outreach within your community as much as it inspired me. Here’s to seeing many more events like this in the future.





Winning Over The Hearts Of Future Scientists: My Experience With Go Red Goes STEM

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 Headshot

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