By Michael Kelberman and Lindsey Shapiro
As the school year returns to full swing, so do many graduate students’ volunteer and outreach opportunities. Students participate in many outreach events, including high school classroom visits, the Atlanta Brain Bee, and the Atlanta Science Festival, which all have the underlying theme of being STEM related. However, not all outreach is or, arguably, should be devoted to strictly scientific outreach. In this article, we will explore the merits of non-scientific outreach through the lens of two neuroscience students at Emory, myself and Lindsey Shapiro.
Michael Kelberman – Decatur-Dekalb Youth Soccer Coach
This fall will mark my third season of coaching local youth soccer teams, making it almost equivalent to the amount of time I’ve been a graduate student at Emory. I knew I wanted to coach during graduate school because I enjoyed being a coach since high school. I thought coaching would allow me to destress from a hectic graduate student work schedule. At the same time, I had a good understanding of the conditions that allowed me to be most productive, which included a repeating weekly schedule. However, my coaching experiences have become so much more than I imagined. I personally feel outreach beyond science is often overlooked in terms of personal, scientific, and societal impact, but my experience as a coach has been important for my development as a leader and ultimately for my career.
A year ago, I decided to reach out to the local YMCA to inquire about coaching a youth team. I was matched with a team of coed 12-13 year-olds. Although my players had a mix of skill levels, I went into the season expecting to be competitive. However, from the very first game, where we lost by 10 goals, I was forced to reevaluate my expectations. We lost game after game by double digit scores, which was so demoralizing that kids began to quit the team. From the third game on, we would play 2-3 players down. Quickly, I was forced to modify my own coaching style to focus on development of all individuals on the team. I did this by creating balanced practices and drills that would benefit all the players rather than a select few. The exercise of modifying my own mentoring style midway through the season directly translates to STEM teaching, as not all students come from similar backgrounds or have the same learning styles. At the same time, I found myself being driven by the players who were dedicated to playing each weekend, even while knowing they were probably going to lose regardless of their effort. When I took a moment to reflect on the season, it struck me that the kids had developed my mentoring abilities as much as I had developed their soccer skills.
By the end of this current season I will have personally interacted with 40 kids who got one-on-one experience with a scientist for at least three hours a week for ten weeks. I was also consistently interacting with parents, which was particularly helpful for networking. For example, I met a parent who works as a scientist at the American Cancer Society. I regularly see former players and their parents at practices and on weekends during games, which allows me to maintain and strengthen these networks. At the same time, I now have people outside of academia who can vouch for my abilities as a mentor in a non-academic setting.
In my year as a student in Emory’s Neuroscience Graduate Program, I have also participated in high school classroom brain displays, the Atlanta Brain Bee as a booth exhibitor, and at the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy Morehouse Networking Night. Overall, coaching allows me to interact with a diverse group of people that I may not reach through other avenues, making me more relatable as a scientist while helping me build a diverse mentoring skillset. I can confidently state that I have benefited just as much from these experiences as other, more traditional scientific outreach opportunities. As such, I would highly recommend branching out to explore events outside of academia.
Lindsey Shapiro- Furkids Medical Team Volunteer
For the past two years, I have volunteered on the medical team at Furkids Animal Rescue and Shelters. Every Saturday morning, I go to the shelter and help administer medicine to sick cats so that can get healthy and find new homes. I started volunteering after I adopted my cat, Ella, from Furkids during my second year in grad school. I love animals, and volunteering at Furkids seemed like a great way to help a cause I am passionate about, while also getting some stress relief (there is nothing better for stress than a purring kitten…). I love going to Furkids every week because I get to learn new skills, meet lots of new people in the community, and hang out with animals.
Grad school can be demanding, and I find it helpful to have a hobby that I participate in outside of science. This way, I know that even if work gets stressful, I always have something to look forward to at the end of each week. Even though scientific outreach can be a lot of fun, it’s important to me that I maintain balance in my life. Going to Furkids allows me to pursue an interest that is not directly related to neuroscience and also to engage with a new group of people outside of science.
Even though my work at Furkids is not directly related to my work in the lab, I think that it helps make me a better scientist. I get to learn a lot about the types of medicine that we give to animals and why we give them- sometimes they are even for neurological issues. I study epilepsy in the lab, and I have gotten to interact with and treat a couple of cats with seizure disorders. Finding ways that science intersects with my other interests helps provide perspective. Being a scientist that does animal research, I also think that my work at Furkids benefits the greater scientific community. Animal research is often misconstrued by people who don’t fully understand it. By going to Furkids every week and interacting with a group of people that are passionate about animals, I help raise awareness about what we do in the lab, and I show that I can be involved in animal research and also be dedicated to issues concerning animal welfare. I think it’s really important for us to bridge that gap between scientists and the community.
My work at Furkids over the last two years has been critical to my success as a graduate student. I love having somewhere to go every week where I can relieve stress, learn new skills and meet new people. It’s easy to feel like grad school is happening in isolation to the rest of the world, but it’s important to remember that we are also a part of the broader community. Engaging with that community makes me a stronger scientist and a more well-rounded person.