High school girls advancing in STEM tour UChicago and Pritzker Molecular Engineering

UChicago recently opened its doors to the 2023 Girls Advancing in STEM (GAINS) Conference. The three-day event connects high school girls interested in STEM with role models working in STEM fields through technical talks, lab tours and a career mixer.

“The GAINS Conference goals are three-fold,” said GAINS Network Director Monica E. Ortiz, Ph.D. “First, we want to expose our students to what STEM looks like in a university setting; second, we want to help them meet mentors that look like them; and, finally, to grow their network of peers that are similarly passionate about STEM.”

Held in early November, the event included tours across the University and by UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering faculty, staff, and students of the Squires Lab, the Hubbell Lab, the Nagler Lab, the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility, and the Kawalek Lab, also known as the STAGE (Scientists, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration) Lab.

PME undergraduate researcher Diangen (Dana) Lin walked the group through the preparing and illuminating individual molecules done every day in the Squires Lab. She said her goal was to give them a “bird’s eye view” showing the fascinating nanoscale single-molecule research work on the other side of academics.

“This gives the high school girls an early, first-hand exposure to what research could look like, by taking them into a wet-lab space and an optics room and letting them see the blinking of single molecules live,” Lin said. “College classes will certainly teach them the hardcore equations and concepts that enable single-molecule detection, but it is important that they do not lose sight of just how interesting what they are looking at is.”

In the STAGE Lab, PME’s innovative full-scale laboratory devoted entirely to meaningful collaborations among scientists and artists, the students played a suite of games at the lab’s “Quantum Casino.” The mechanics of these games emulate the core principles of quantum science, providing the double benefit of learning science while having fun. Prof. Nancy Kawalek, who helms the STAGE Lab, is convinced that bringing more women and people of diverse backgrounds into STEM “fosters imaginative, creative and innovative work.”

“If we are to make meaningful and impactful achievements in STEM—ones that solve real-world problems—it is vitally important to encourage young women and untapped talent pools of all kinds to engage and remain in STEM,” Kawalek said.

Tyeisha Harkness, 17, of Boston, is leaning toward studying biology when she goes to college in the fall, but she said the STAGE tour hit on two of her other interests.

“I liked learning about how they connect theater and art to physics and other types of science,” she said. “Those are the two things I really like and it was really cool how they linked those.”

Sixteen-year-old Alexandra Zummo from Old Greenwich, Connecticut, said her sneak peek into the immunoengineering work in the Hubbell Lab is helping her decide not if she plans to go into STEM, but where. The high-school sophomore said she’s currently weighing chemistry, biochemistry or biotechnology as career paths.

“I like the focus on careers, which I don’t know much about and people haven’t really told me much about,” Zummo said of the conference. “Also, getting to see inside labs makes it clearer what I might be interested in pursuing.”

Opening its doors to the conference of young women in science is part of PME’s ongoing commitment to outreach and inclusivity, reaching out to groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM. These efforts include Battery Day at the Museum of Science and Industry, the South Side Science Festival and the No Small Matter Molecular Engineering Fair, among many other outreach efforts.

The PME tours were among a slate of options students could choose across UChicago, including visits to the Physics, Neurobiology, Chemistry, Psychology, Geophysical Sciences, Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience, Radiology and Computer Science departments and the Pritzker School of Medicine.

The GAINS conference is an annual event visiting a different university every year, usually in November, Ortiz said. Learn more.