Organic approach to science

Organic approach to science
(Shutterstock) Muscogee (Creek) citizen Jenny Wilkerson is involved with several societies promoting STEM education.

Liz Gray/Reporter

Citizen discusses involvement with STEM

OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — Girl Scouts was more than just cookie sales for Muscogee (Creek) citizen Jenny Wilkerson, to her it was the introduction of the idea someone that looked like her could be a scientist.

“Growing up I didn’t have a lot of extra push to get into STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Math] and I certainly didn’t have any special kind of assistance because of my heritage,” Wilkerson said.

She grew up in the Kansas City, Missouri area, away from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation jurisdiction but would connect with her heritage through intertribal powwows and exposure from visits to Haskell Indian Nations University.

She attended Northwest Missouri State University and studied Cellular and Molecular Biology.

Her interests in medicine, science and biology started at a young age though she was uncertain at the time what direction to take, she considered the options of becoming a veterinarian and a human physician.

Wilkerson realized she had a passion for bench top laboratory research, getting her hands dirty and playing with chemicals.

After receiving her Bachelor’s degree she worked at a CRO, which is a contract research organization that serves as an intermediary for the pharmaceutical companies wanting to conduct clinical trials and physicians prescribing medications.

Wilkerson said she wanted to do something more than pushing papers around in a cubicle.

“I wanted to be on the side of things that were making these new discoveries and making these new drugs,” she said.

While searching for a university to attend for her postgraduate degree, she was drawn in by University of New Mexico for it’s diversity of tribal nations represented and the sense of family she felt at the college.

Wilkerson knew she wanted to study biomedical sciences and develop drugs to help people and was able to receive extra support by the minority society at UNM.

Her involvement with promoting diversity in science began once she started attending UNM, through a program called IMSD, Initiative for Maximize Student Diversity.

IMSD is supported through the National Institute for Health, the program is meant to recognize increasing diversity in STEM, specifically through health-related questions.

Wilkerson said a minority’s view is important when trying to answer scientific questions that have never been answered before.

“Minority voices tend to come at questions regarding STEM a little bit differently than Caucasian white males,” she said. “We tend to think a lot more organically about questions.”

Wilkerson said minorities have a more organic approach to questions.

“Minorities tend to think much more levelheaded and to the point with regard to trying to find the answers, so we keep it real,” she said.

Wilkerson is also involved with the Society of Advancing Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

SACNAS has the goal of helping minority students to achieve great things in the name of science, instilling the next generation of minority leaders in STEM.

They also offer resources for Hispanic and Native American students including year-round mentorships, workshops, networks and support for both undergraduates and graduates pursuing degrees in STEM.

The organization works in alliance with several Native American national programs including American Indian Higher Education Consortium, American Indian Science & Engineering Society, Indian Health Service and Native American Research Centers for Health.

Wilkerson provided resources for tribal youth interested in STEM residing in Oklahoma.

“I realize that often, many talented and bright minority youth don’t end up getting very far in STEM, because they don’t know the ‘secret handshakes’ that are needed to succeed,” Wilkerson said in an email. “It’s a game of not know what you don’t know.”

An email response from current SACNAS president provided the following information:

‘The SACNAS national organization does not work directly on the K-12 level, however many of our chapters work in K-12 outreach and mentoring activities. We have a chapter at Oklahoma State University.’

Wilkerson is currently the Research Assistant Professor for the Department of Pharmacodynamics at the University of Florida, where they offer a summer undergraduate program called SURF [Summer Undergraduate Research at Florida].

She said there are several programs, including SURF, that work with undergraduates of science majors from under-represented backgrounds. The students have travel and lodging paid by the university, receive stipend and work full time in a laboratory setting.

SURF program information: www.eng.ufl.edu/surf/.

OSU SACNAS chapter email: Sacnas.okstate@gmail.com

SACNAS advisor Dr. Mario Borunda: Mario.borunda@okstate.edu.

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