KayLoni Olson, Student Chair
This year at the Society for Health Psychology, we have been guided by our Society President in an effort to harness diversity and enhance our capacity to serve as an inclusive home for professionals and trainees alike. Not terribly long ago, the APA accreditation guidelines were changed to highlight the importance of diversity in every aspect of training. Programs are expected to reflect diversity across the faculty, students, and administrative employees, and multicultural issues are expected to be incorporated across the curriculum rather than being quarantined to one specific course.
As trainees, you will inherit the profound responsibility of continuing to celebrate diversity as the strength that it truly represents. In fact, at our most fundamental level, diversity is the pathway to adaptation and survival. Along with this responsibility is the essential task of dismantling any factor that maintains systematic barriers for specific groups of individuals. Thinking of these issues from an intersectional perspective not only provides a more nuanced understanding of the issues but highlights innovative opportunities to impact multiple issues at the same time. Today we have the pleasure of hearing from Ms. Macon Lowman, founder of Letters to a Pre-Scientist. In this Q&A we hear more about the program, what factors the program is aiming to address, and how Ms. Lowman’s own diverse training background helped her think creatively about a need she observed in her students.
Please take note of the opportunities for psychologists (and especially trainees!) to get involved.
1. Let’s start with Letters to a Pre–scientist. Tell us about the program.
Letters to a Pre-Scientist is a pen pal program that was developed to address the concern that students from high poverty schools, the majority of whom are students of color, regularly lack access to science role models. Our pen pal program aims to demystify science careers for 5th – 10th grade student “pre-scientists” by matching them with science professionals based on shared interests. We believe it is important to expose our students to fields within the life, natural, and social sciences.
2. How did Letters to a Pre–Scientist come to be?
Letters was created in 2010 in eastern North Carolina while I was teaching 6th grade science through Teach For America. My classroom teamed up with then-UC-Berkeley chemistry PhD student, Anna Goldstein, who helped recruit enough scientist pen pals to correspond with all 100 of my students. My classroom was in an extremely under-resourced school, where 80% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Most of my students had never left their small town of Windsor, and many were unsure that they would complete high school, let alone college. We saw that receiving letters from a science mentor brought joy, career inspiration, and an increased level of engagement in science content. We saw the same positive outcomes in another classroom, so we decided to further test the scalability. We’re now in our 8th year of operation, currently supporting 9 classrooms in 8 cities across 5 states, and are reaching over 650 students. In fall 2017, we became a fiscally sponsored non-profit.
3. What systemic issues are you hoping to address through this program?
The majority of students in high poverty schools are students of color and the breakdown of STEM doctoral degrees awarded in 2015 is alarming: only 4.2% were awarded to black students and 6.5% to Latino students (National Center for Education Statistics). Compounded with the lack of science professionals working and living in low-income communities, students in these communities often do not feel science is accessible to them. Without intervention, low-income students are excluded from the career choices and life prospects that a science education can offer. When we ask students what a scientist looks like at the beginning of the school year, they often describe an older white man in a lab coat; we want to break this stereotype of what a scientist looks like so students see themselves as future scientists.
4. Tell us about your background and training, and how those experiences shaped your vision for LPS
My own background and training has spanned education, public health, and nursing. These experiences have shown me that health impacts education and vice versa, and both of these areas impact how we engage with society. If we want to create a world where all children have a high quality of life and are able to become meaningful participants in their communities, we have to invest in their health and education. Furthermore, there are skills we learn in science that have value across careers from critical thinking, resiliency in the face of failure, science literacy, and the ability to find and digest evidence-based information.
5. Sometimes we become siloed within our field, but many of our big picture goals are shared across professions. Tell us how you think collaboration and incorporating diverse perspectives allows you to more powerfully achieve your goals?
The experiences I discuss above left me shocked at how often the health and education sectors work in silos while tackling similar issues. I imagine psychologists have shared these sentiments with professionals in fields of overlapping interests. I want to acknowledge there are barriers to collaborating across fields, but I also want to challenge people to creatively overcome these barriers in order to expand impact. I believe the more opportunities we create to collaborate on teams comprised of individuals with different perspectives and backgrounds, the more innovative our solutions will become.
6. What ways can psychologists contribute to LPS?
An immediate action psychologists can take is to visit our website (http://www.prescientist.org/) to sign up for our mailing list. We will notify our mailing list first when pen pal registration is live for the 2018 – 2019 school year in early summer, as well as send along other volunteer opportunities and organization updates.
We are actively looking for innovative ways to provide more science enrichment activities to our students. In the past, scientists have Skyped into classrooms to lead a Q&A, visited classrooms to lead a mini-lesson, and hosted field trips to their workplace. Psychologists could prepare flyers or videos about their fields, or create activities and experiments that students could complete to gauge their interest in the field. We are certainly open to repeating any of these ideas, as well as hearing about new ones that psychologists are interested in sharing. You can reach out to us directly with your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additionally, we have had science organizations from universities partner with us as a group of pen pals, who also host fundraising events for us. We are excited to continue this kind of partnership, and welcome you to reach out with your interests. Finally, we are currently a completely volunteer-run non-profit, so we always welcome support through financial contributions via the link on our website.