Having just begun her third year as a STEM Facilitator for Sisters4Science, Nedum Aniemeka is now a veteran on the scene. A 4th-year biology major at the University of Chicago, with a specialization in endocrinology, she works in the endocrinology lab on diabetes research, and is a member of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority. She grew up in Oak Park.
Project Exploration: How did you first get involved with PE?
Nedum Aniemeka: In 2013, I got an email from an email list I’m on at University of Chicago, seeing if anyone wanted to do this job with an organization called Project Exploration. I had never heard of it before, but it seemed interesting. So, I got an interview with Natasha and she told me about the program. It seemed really cool, because the whole idea of inspiring girls really resonated with me. When I was, like, 11 or 12 I had a camp counselor who did that for me. She was really into math and technology and made me want to go into that. So, I wanted to be able to make someone else feel that way.
PE: How does your work as a facilitator relate to your studies and/or career aspirations?
NA: I’ve always been interested in the idea of community outreach, and giving other people opportunities, the kind of opportunities that people who got to a school like I do might take for granted. My mom and dad own a clinic on the west side, and my mom always tried to encourage younger patients to go to college, which is not very normal on the west side. She always wanted to make them feel like they should. That kind of attitude is something I carried with me.
Working with PE has definitely made me more interested in trying to do work like this outside of PE. I’m currently interested in global outreach, so I applied for a Fulbright recently. The whole idea of being involved in improving education, and encouraging girls to do things that they are not expected to do, is really interesting to me. I would like to join organizations like PE once I’m out of med school.
PE: In addition to being a doctor, do you see yourself continuing to do public service work?
Yeah, one of the options for my time before medical school is getting a masters degree in public health. I know there are a lot of doctors that help contribute to public health policy. If I could do programs like PE’s Girls Health and Science Day, programs that are built into schools – and be responsible for making the policies that have that built into schools – that would be really cool.
PE: What have you learned from working with PE youth?
NA: I didn’t go into being a facilitator knowing exactly what was going to happen or completely equipped, but I knew it wasn’t going to be as perfect as people would want it to be. It’s not a situation where you immediately inspire every girl and they all want to do science. I knew there would be troublemakers that didn’t want to do the activities, that there would be girls who didn’t understand it and feel discouraged because they don’t understand it. Being involved in S4S has made me more aware of the struggles one encounters trying to teach girls, but I went into it know it wouldn’t be a perfect experience.
PE: Can you talk about one of those challenges?
NA: One of the girls at Ariel started off as one of the sassier girls. She didn’t want to be there, and always made jokes, basically with no real interest in anything other than being the class clown. But then, as the experiments got more involved and she was able to do more hands-on things, her interest visibly grew. The way she treated the program changed, it wasn’t a joke for her, it was actually something she looked forward to doing. That was really great for me to see, because at first I was so frustrated by her. By the end it was a complete turn-around.
PE: What do you think was the cause of that turn-around? Are there specific things that you did?
NA: I honestly think it’s just trying to make sure that the girls get to do hands-on things. Because normally school is so centered on the teacher lecturing while the students listen and take notes. I think PE does a great job of changing that structure, the way we have scientists come in and do hands-on experiments with them. It’s a new way to learn, and that makes it more interesting. Which is what makes the program so engaging for the girls.
PE: Was there a specific activity that caused the turn-around for her, or was it more of a “slow burn”?
NA: I think it was a slow process, but the one experiment that she and a lot of the other girls were really into was when Dr. Mussat came in and gave the girls bananas to do fake surgeries on. The girls were so excited to actually use surgical tools. They liked that they were able to use things that actual doctors use.
PE: If you had to pick one lesson that you’ve learned, what would it be?
NA: Definitely patience. I think all teachers are saints, because they must have the patience of monks. I definitely know now that you can’t expect girls to just do what you want immediately. You have to be patient. (laughs)
PE: What’s next for you?
NA: I’m graduating in June of 2016, so I’ll be working with PE until then. I’m not sure what I’m going to do before medical school, if I’ll be in Chicago or not. I’m applying for programs all over the country and in other countries, so there’s no guarantee what I’ll do.