James and Sezen have been Science Club mentors at the True Value Boys & Girls Club in Little Village since it started in 2016. For two and a half years, they’ve come every week to work with middle school students on hands-on science curriculum and experiments.
James and Sezen are graduate students at University of Illinois at Chicago in the Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy PhD program. In addition to being colleagues and collaborating mentors, they are also married to each other! As James and Sezen sunset their time as Science Club mentors and move on to the next stages of their careers, we sat down together to talk about their experience.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What originally interested you in working with Science Club?
Sezen: The opportunity to mentor kids; to do experiments with them and contribute to their personal and educational development made me very interested in Science Club.
James: I first heard about Science Club through Sezen. She was very excited that she was joining a volunteer program about science education. I had been wanting to volunteer and science education is something I feel strongly about, it was a good fit.
Is it what you thought it would be?
S: The program completely met my expectations. However, I thought it would have been easier to talk and bond with the kids. In reality, it took more time and effort than I expected.
J: I thought I was going to help out with some projects every week, I did not realize what it means to be a mentor. There is a fulfillment there that goes beyond science projects.
You both have been with the same boys -- Santino since Fall 2016 and Leo since Winter 2017 -- for several quarters. How have you seen them grow in the program?
J: Working with Santino and Leo has been immensely rewarding. Scientifically, I have witnessed drastic improvements in their comprehension. They better understand asking scientific questions, forming a hypothesis, recording their data, and interpreting results.
Socially, I am reminded of a something Emily Mathews, Science Club’s senior program coordinator, said during mentor orientation. Paraphrasing, she said, “This is an exciting time. This is the age when their personalities start to form.” I have been lucky to see those changes take place in Santino and Leo.
S: The most prominent change I observed was after a few quarters. They both came up with their own interesting experimental ideas and made a good team, working hard together to turn those ideas into an actual project.
Having been a mentor at the True Value Science Club since the beginning, how have you seen the program and community evolve?
J: I have watched Science Club grow from an uneasy beginning to a strong program. The first quarter was tough. Each week the mentors would show up full of enthusiasm, ready to do science, educate, and change lives! But hardly any students came. I remember being told not to despair, that True Value needed time to build a “culture of Science Club”. Every week we worked with any student that dropped in. Eventually, some of those drop-ins became regulars.
S: Now, they are eager to help before and after Science Club and sometimes attend to more than one session a week. The kids started telling their friends about the cool experiments we were doing and would bring them along.
We also used to do experiments on foldable tables in the auditorium, but now we have a laboratory [built with support from the Driskill Foundation, Science in Society, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago]. It is much more authentic and familiarizes [the children] with scientific equipment.
You mentioned that establishing the Science Club culture was challenging at times. How did you keep your group coming back and excited?
J: One strategy was to engage them in ways unrelated to science. By the time Science Club begins, the kids have been in school all day and even (maybe) done some homework. Jumping right into a lesson can be tough. We take time before each lesson to ask them about their day or what they did over the weekend. It helps develop our connection and gets them talking. I think students are more likely to come if they feel like they are hanging out rather than showing up for a lesson.
S: We make each session fun by incorporating [the kids'] curiosity and letting them do all the experiments so it is ‘their’ hands-on activity. When each session ended, we’d say ‘See you next week!’. The Science Club Team helped us a lot to create that sincere environment.
What kept you coming back?
J: Mentoring is genuinely fun. I cannot predict what will happen. Students can take a lesson in so many different directions. You get to play along in their world for a couple hours while doing some fun experiments.
S: Even though they don’t express it verbally, the kids are also happy when we show up. They know we come to Science Club for them. Moreover, Science Club needs mentors to attend regularly. This establishes a reliable community.
Thinking about the mentor relationship; did you have an influential mentor that inspired you as a student?
S: I had two influential mentors at college that convinced me to do research in the United States. As two strong women in science, their success and care influenced my career choices. They gave me the confidence. But most importantly, they paid attention and listened.
What do you think your role as a mentor is (or should be) in your kids’ lives?
S: I think my role as a mentor is to listen. [The kids] have a lot to say and we are there to hear them.
J: I think my role as a mentor is to facilitate, but not control. Sometimes that means trusting them to measure out ingredients for a pancake recipe, other times it's helping them form a scientific question. They may ask, “What will happen if…?” and I’m not helping them by giving them the answer. Instead I’ll ask, “What do you think will happen? Why?” With the right support they can work through almost any problem. And most importantly, they develop a sense of ownership.
What advice would you give to a fellow scientist considering joining Science Club?
J: I would say that they should absolutely do it. Not only is it an emotionally rewarding experience, but it is a good opportunity to get a change of environment and focus on something other than your experiments.
S: I always encourage my scientist friends to be mentors in Science Club. It is a very different and rewarding experience. I recommend new mentors be active and positive, to engage in conversation and to enjoy the time they spend in the sessions. It can also be challenging and uncomfortable, so I advise patience and perseverance.
J: It is alright to feel uncomfortable when you start, but don’t let it stop you from coming. For me, mentoring was “fake it till you make it.” I went in with a smile on my face and knots in my stomach. Those knots eventually went away.
S: Attending each session and participating in the orientations make that process easier. Whenever you have a difficulty, Science Club staff will be there to help you.
How has Science Club influenced your view of being a scientist?
J: If you ask scientists about their contribution to the world, we reflexively talk about the impact of our research or our contribution to the sum of human knowledge. However, those benefits are far removed from most people’s lives.
By volunteering with Science Club, I have learned that our contribution could be so much more impactful. Science Club is a way to use my education to influence the outcomes of these students. I now view scientists as both researchers and contributors to their community.
We’re sorry you’re leaving Chicago and Science Club this summer. We’ll miss you! What’s next for you both?
J: Leaving Chicago is bittersweet. But, we are both taking post-doctoral positions at the NIH. I’ll be studying post-transcriptional gene regulation and RNA binding proteins.
S: I will be starting my post-doctoral research in molecular biology.
What has been your most rewarding memory from Science Club?
S: Seeing that we occupy some place in their lives has been the most rewarding. One of our kids would run and hug us each time we came to Club. If there was something bothering them, even if a very personal matter, they would share it with us. Spending several quarters with our kids, the connection we built with them created many rewarding moments. That [relationship] is what I will take away with me.
J: Without a doubt my favorite memory from Science Club is Flarp. Flarp is a slime. We were planning experiments for science fair and a student brought in Flarp she made that day at school. The kids were so distracted – but instead of trying to change the subject, we decided to roll with it. How could we make our science fair conversation incorporate this enthusiasm? Quickly our lesson turned into an exploration of this curious material and the questions started to flow naturally. How did you make it? Could you make it gooier? What would you change to make it gooier? How do you measure gooiness?
By the end of the next lesson we had nearly a dozen different recipes planned and a student designed “splat” experiment. The kids would drop each Flarp from a set height and measure the splatter. The kids were enthralled and self-motivated. They built a scientifically-sound experiment centered around their interests. It was better than perfect; it was their own creation.
What do you hope is in store for your Science Club kids?
S: I sincerely hope they will get a good education, go to college, and make good choices. I think they are brilliant and capable of doing anything they want.
J: We have some truly bright kids. They are charismatic and intelligent. I see so much potential in them. They could become engineers, writers, scientists or teachers. I hope that, with the support of education and mentorship, their potential is realized so they have the opportunity to become whatever they desire.
Thanks to Sezen and James for this interview – and all they’ve contributed to Science Club over the years.