Marina Achterman Exemplifies Potential of Late-to-STEM Students

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Marina Achterman says the “passion for what I was learning, sparked the extra attention and wanting to excel."
Six Blue Morpho butterfly photos are from modules that explain pigmentation and wing nanostructure.

Marina Achterman has a 4.0 GPA at Pasadena City College (PCC) where she’s majoring in chemical engineering and doing research as a paid intern. Achterman’s rise to STEM star—she is one of 30 students whose scientific posters were featured at the 2020 Virtual ATE Conference—is a delightful turnaround from her performance in high school biology.

“I was terrible at science,” she said with a light laugh during a recent interview via Zoom. She explained that as a teenager she didn’t see that it mattered to pay attention in school. “I guess I never really applied myself. I wasn’t interested in biology in high school. After I went to PCC I got really interested in chemistry,” she said of the self-discovery that occurred in an introductory general chemistry course.

“I had to start at the bottom. I’m glad I did because I found that I have a passion for it…It was the wavelengths of light that got to me. I love learning about photonics,” she explained.

Then in her second semester of chemistry, Achterman heard Jared M. Ashcroft, principal investigator of the new Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC), talk about undergraduate research experiences. A natural sciences instructor at PCC, Ashcroft has had various leadership roles in the college’s robust undergraduate research programs.

“He came into class and was talking about nuclear chemistry and stuff like that, and I was like, ‘Sold!’,”  she said, raising her hand during the Zoom interview to mimic her response to Ashcroft’s pitch in that 2019 class.

Using research opportunities such as paid internships to recruit students to STEM—particularly individuals whose previous education experiences did not identify them as “good at science”—is a mission to Ashcroft and one he considers “vital” for other community college educators too. 

Prof Pushes Rethinking “Good at STEM” Designations 

“We have to do a better job of recruiting struggling students into research. Research is the one practice that I have found [that] motivates and keeps students in STEM regardless of where they start. Getting into the lab and being able to investigate real science leads to better success in the class,” he wrote in an email.

During a panel discussion at the 2020 Virtual ATE Conference, Ashcroft talked about the success he has had going to college club meetings and into introductory courses to tell students about PCC’s many research opportunities. His target audience is underrepresented students, particularly individuals who have previously not been encouraged to pursue STEM careers. 

“It is unfortunate that we think ‘good at STEM’ means able to pass STEM exams. Getting into lab and actually doing science is a better way to support students’ success in STEM. Everyone can do STEM, just not everyone can regurgitate the theoretical exam questions that we develop in our STEM classes designed to fail students,” Ashcroft wrote in the recent email.

He recruits about 30 students each year during his on-campus speaking tour. He estimates that about 75% of the people who respond are from groups underrepresented in STEM including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and veterans. This year COVID impacted retention and only about half—including Achterman—stayed actively involved in research that was conducted using remote technologies. In a typical year when students can work in laboratories, he said, about 75% of students persist in research activities.

Interns Assist with Interdisciplinary Modules & Research Reports

Following Ashcroft’s presentation Achterman applied for and was selected for one of three paid internships with PCC’s BUILD PODER (Promoting Opportunities for Diversity in Education and Research) program. It is part of the National Institute of Health Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Initiative.

Because of COVID Achterman’s work on light refraction within the nanostructures of Blue Morpho butterfly wings has been done from a desktop computer in her bedroom. Her ATE Conference scientific poster “Winging It: Interdisciplinary Lessons from the Blue Morpho Butterfly in Physics, Chemistry, and Nanotechnology,” describes and illustrates how the butterflies’ pigmentation and nanostructure affect wing color. In addition, Achterman has been working on a collaborative project developing and assessing a statistics module utilizing DataClassroom, an on-line statistics platform, that Ashcroft is using in his chemistry courses.

Ashcroft explained that the student interns “led the creation of the statistics modules that we are using in my chemistry courses. They designed the Canvas modules and created the surveys that analyzed the impact of the modules. Marina worked on the Python module. Sophia Barber and Sophia Ibarguen led the team that worked on the DataClassroom modules.” Scientific posters created by Barber and Ibarguen were also displayed at the 2020 ATE Conference.

Although they have not been able to do hands-on work in labs, the interns learned how to collect images of butterfly wings with a scanning electron microscope during a session conducted by Attila Ozgur Cakmak, an assistant teaching professor at Pennsylvania State University. Ashcroft collaborated with Cakmak through the Remotely Accessible Instruments for Nanotechnology (RAIN) Network that is led by the Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge (NACK) Support Center, an ATE Center at Penn State.

The Cakmak-created images along with work done by the interns and Ashcroft are included in a paper they have submitted to the Journal of the Society for Information Display. The interns are also working on a simulation for students to learn about colors from the project.

Aside from the learning opportunities, Achterman said the paid internship was especially helpful this summer and fall because the yoga studio where she worked part time has been closed due to the pandemic. “Being able to research from home and get paid for it while doing my school work is super helpful,” she said.

She hopes to complete her associate degree in fall 2021 and transfer to a University of California campus to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and perhaps eventually earn a PhD. 

“I have always been unsure what I wanted to do. But after I took my first chemistry class I was kind of set in chemistry. When I joined the research program I loved it, and I love learning. I think that’s what I’ll most likely do,” she said.

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