What to teach the next generation of STEM students?

Hunter Jamison 20th March 2019

This interview is part of the day in the life series. Here, we explore scientists' research-related joys and challenges. Today, we are speaking to Claudia Alarcón Lópdez, student researcher at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education).

(Q) Tell me a bit about yourself and your research background.

Mexican undergraduate currently studying cancer-on-a-chip, which involves analyzing 3-dimensional models of cancer. Typical models of cancer are intractable because they don’t consider 3-D form. I have researched Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, and Nanotechnology as well. I like to use my Undergrad to explore different areas before I specialize.

(Q) Since you’re the @the.nanotechgirl, could you help explain the difference between your microscopic research and nanoscopic research?

The main difference between the nano and micro fields, besides the size, are the different properties that these materials present. Micro materials are strictly restricted to the laws of classical physics, while materials whose dimensions are on the nanoscopic scale tend to present quantum effects. For example, gold is a precious metal at the macroscopic scale, but has applications in treating cancer at a cellular level.

(Q) Has your lab PI had a major impact on your development in science? Have they helped you navigate such an integrated field?

It’s difficult because I like a lot of fields. Most of the things I’ve got into have happened really randomly. For example, last year I organized several conferences for science week. One of the researchers really liked me and we had good conversations. She appreciates the quality of my work, though we hadn’t had the opportunity to work in the lab together. This year she reached out, because she was coordinating an initiative for female empowerment. She wanted an outreach event for it. I organized it, which opened an offer to do research with her. She has a big lab with her husband at my university, so I took the opportunity even though I have a lot going on this semester. I’m learning a lot of biotechnology, and they put me in charge of the Immunohistochemistry project, which I’m very honored about. I’m able to see cancer cells and the steroids I’m working with, which you can’t see in nanotechnology.

"What I see mostly is a lack of women in important leadership positions."

(Q) Are the female empowerment initiatives something you’re still involved with in your university?

The ratio between male and female researchers is actually quite healthy here - we’re improving at the undergraduate and graduate levels. What I see mostly is a lack of women in important leadership positions.

Two weeks ago I put on an event for International Women in Science Day, and I invited mainly transgender female researchers and those focusing on disability research. I believe in advocating for not only women, but in being an activist for what everybody’s capabilities are - not factors like what they look like, or their gender, or their preferences. These are insular to people’s own lives. People need to be given opportunity, so they can earn their position and prove the work they can do.

I’ve also created a sort of social service, where we go to schools to teach Chemistry, Math, and Engineering. But still, I didn’t want to only focus on STEM education, but also emphasize education about being a person. I give girls and boys talks about self-confidence, respect, and empowerment because I think we shouldn’t only be so academically focused. It’s important to make them understand that they’re valuable. I think respect is the cornerstone of everything, so we teach them to respect themselves, others, and the environment. For example, success will come from self-respect and moderation, focus on enriching your body and mind.

"Success will come from self-respect and moderation, focus on enriching your body and mind."

(Q) I think it’s incredible what you’re doing not just to build your own leadership skills, but to invest in teaching these skills to younger students.

Thank you. I’ll also add that I was reading Philosophy about social media the other day. It got me thinking about why I wanted to have the @the.nanotechgirl Instagram profile. It’s important to notice why you are doing things. For example, I didn’t make the account just to enrich my scholarship, but because I have a concern about society. I was led to make the account because I have a lot of creative friends that run other accounts that inspire people in various ways. I haven’t been a huge fan of the superficial aspects of social media, even though I respect much of the creativity. I wanted to be sure my feed was informative, educational and interesting - even if it’s just one of millions of pages out there. I still post pictures of myself and my life, because it’s important not to ignore that it’s a social platform, but it’s my main focus to help reduce much of the superficiality on social media. It’s a big opportunity to benefit humanity.

(Q) It’s cool that you invest in representing yourself as a multi-dimensional person on your profile. You bring people along on your journey through science, and it adds meaning to what you’re doing.

Well, I spend a lot of time in the lab, but it’s not the only thing I do. If I want to teach something about equilibrium and balance in life, I have to live it and be an example. I take breaks from school and party, dance (belly dancing and salsa dancing), cook, and spend time with family and friends. I want to show people what’s possible - that there’s time to live your life. It’s not about titles and getting your PhD just because it sounds great. It’s important to have balance in your life.

I actually don’t spend too much time on social media. I designate only 20 minutes a day to plan my posts. I even think that’s what parent should do, because that’s what my mom did. I’m really thankful and it helped me a lot. We’d designate homework-only time and it’s been an extremely useful habit. Reduce social media time, if you’re not using it to feeding your soul. Do other things: live and enjoy your life, visit your friends, call your parents, and dance! I recommend dancing. It’s really good for your brain and for your mood. Try different types of dance - even yoga is amazing too. Look for the thing you like, and try a lot of things. For example, I’ve just started tennis practice and I’m the worst. You’re not going to be good in the beginning, but when you finally get the hang of it, you feel really good and start enjoying it. Don’t be afraid of failure. Live your life and do things for yourself, not others. Do things because you want to and because you have a big goal. I chose something that I knew could help the world on a big scale. For example, climate change is a huge issue, yet the solution starts with yourself and your own habits. It all comes back to respect. If you respect yourself, you respect others and the environment. If you get anything out of this call, I’d want it to be respect.

(Q) What’s the best way for people to get in touch with you?

Instagram: @the.nanotechgirl because I actually answer my messages.

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