Engaging with critique of UDL as a disabled educator

Since I began developing a cohesive pedagogy, I have been frustrated with the gap in research focused on UDL in STEM. In some ways, it felt to me like an extension of the erasure of disabled students from STEM in higher education. All this to say, I was excited when the following article appeared in my google scholar alerts:

Lessons (Not) Learned: The Troubling Similarities Between Learning Styles and Universal Design for Learning

[Boysen, G. A. (2021). Lessons (not) learned: The troubling similarities between learning styles and universal design for learning. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000280]

I recommend reading the article yourself, but I wanted to share a few of my thoughts.

While this article presents fair and insightful criticisms of UDL, I did feel that the criticisms brushed over what I have considered the underlying goal of UDL (which may differ from the description of UDL in the literature). To me, the underlying goal is to accommodate disabled students without relying on their ability (for lack of a better word) to go through the ADA process and present an official accommodation letter. There are many reasons why this is an important goal.

First, there are financial, social and cultural barriers to receiving a diagnosis or long term care that would qualify a student for ADA accommodations.

Second, many in the rare disease/chronic illness community struggle for years to get any kind of diagnosis that would qualify them for ADA accommodations (if they receive a diagnosis at all).

Third, this proactive approach to building an accessible classroom acknowledges that even with the best disability coordinators, the ADA accommodation process can be extremely taxing on a disabled students’ emotion and physical health.

That said, the author is clear that they do not believe UDL should be wholly abandoned or condemned, and their criticisms has informed my future inclusion of UDL (as a term) in my pedagogy. Here’s what stood out to me:

Variability and experimental design challenges

This one is self-explanatory, but the author provides examples of different conceptions of UDL implemented in the classroom, and discusses how that creates problems for experimental design. Hopefully, with more research, we can see progress on these issues.

Specificity and student agency (a la learning styles)

The lens of the article is presenting criticisms of UDL through a comparison to learning styles. I found this to be very relatable, as I have used the concept of learning styles as an analog to explain UDL, while giving the preface that learning styles is an outdated concept. At the same time, I did not engage with what this comparison said about UDL itself. I have at times also used unsupported cliches like, “UDL helps everyone,” because I felt that the conclusion was intuitive. The author, however, points out why this shouldn’t be an intuitive conclusion.

Sure, if we teach using a variety of formats, students have more opportunities to succeed regardless of their “preference” for specific formats… but that would require that:

a) students have a clear and accurate understanding of what their “preference” is, and

b) students, when given choices, choose that preferred format.

The literature on learning styles has established that there isn’t much in terms of the evidence of these specific categories of learning preferences, such that students would actually be able to make these determinations. Additionally, students are going to make choices based on multiple factors, including convenience.

Concluding thoughts

At the end of the day, I engage with this criticism from a significant bias. I have a rare illness, and I resonate more with this ‘individualized’ orientation towards teaching, because I have had very different experiences than the average student, or the average person in general. At the same time, I have written before about how to me a supportive learning environment includes interactions with other students, and thus, I believe pedagogy should include more generalized considerations of facilitating and supporting group interactions. As the author concludes, the best path is probably one that combines aspects of individualized and generalized theories of learning.

When I talk about my pedagogy, my goal is to help students understand my commitment to accessibility, so that if any access needs come up, they can feel comfortable expressing that need to me. I will be re-working my pedagogy statement and the pedagogy intro to exchange references to UDL and format variety for a description of ADA accommodations and access needs. I think this switch would accomplish the same goals without running into the critiques from this article.

Hope everyone is having a great summer! I am hoping to post a research update soon.

Why I Love Science Summer Camps

When I teach a class that involves starting with an icebreaker, I prefer to use the activity to ‘prime’ students, rather than learn who has the best memory for their peers’ names. I like to ask my students: What is your favorite science memory? I always qualify this question by stressing that a science memory is not exclusive to science classes or lessons in your K-12 journey. Science memories can also come from at home experiences, workshops, and, of course, summer camps.

Since the age of 14, I have taught around thirty weeks of science summer camps, with my most recent week having ended today. I have taught camps as an employee, but also as a volunteer, so my love for camps does not wholly have to do with employment.

I love science, and regardless of how uncool I seem to middle schoolers and high schoolers, I believe that science should be fun. Kids in K12 have a distinct “school mode” that runs the length of the typical school year. During that “school mode,” the orientation of the education system towards measures of academic performance looms large in kids minds. While measuring progress towards learning goals is an essential part of a teaching pedagogy, we can’t deny that test taking is not…fun. The liberating part of summer camps is the opportunity to re-engage kids in the joy of learning in an environment where measures of academic performance are relatively “low-stakes.” And as much as I am an educator who enjoys the act of developing and teaching my lessons, I will always be so excited by a student who can genuinely tell me that they have had fun learning something from me.

Image: A plastic plate with three wells with pink somewhat transparent, clumpy liquid in each well. This is from a blood typing lab we did.

In the past two years, I have enjoyed teaching undergraduate labs, but I missed teaching camps. In the hiatus, I have further developed and fleshed out my teaching pedagogy. I especially enjoyed trying to find visual ways to briefly describe my pedagogy to my campers. While Zoom will never be a preferred teaching mode for me, I am happy with the progress I can see in my own ability to gauging different levels of comfort with virtual engagement, and “listening” and adapting to the “virtual body language” of zoom behavior. That said, I look forward to teaching in-person again in the fall.

Image: Manya and her dog, Sicily, on a laptop screen showing their webcam video while they are in a Zoom room before camp.

Additional Reading:

The Influence of Science Summer Camp on African-American High School Students’ Career Choices

Hands-On Summer Camp to Attract K–12 Students to Engineering Fields

Students’ Perceptions of the Long-Term Impact of Attending a “CSI Science Camp”

On Chasing New Challenges

TLDR: My term as a student representative on the DEI Committee of Botanical Society for America starts in July. I’m excited for this new opportunity as my time with student government at UH comes to a close. Edit: I’ll also be serving as the outreach coordinator for the Hawaii chapter of Graduate Women in Science for the 2021-2022 school year!

Anyone who has known me through college and into graduate school knows how important and central student advocacy has been in my life. After I moved to Hawaii, I knew I needed to find a new home for my efforts instead of trying to stay up to date on what was happening in Claremont. I was approved by the General Assembly to serve as the Academic Affairs Chair for the Graduate Student Organization in October 2019, only two months after I started grad school. I have had many opportunities to advocate for students in a time of great turmoil and change. I have also had the opportunity to learn about the structural differences between a consortium of small colleges like Scripps, and a massive, flagship state university. While there was much to learn, I was qualified for the position. I had extensive experience in helping students manage grievances and inter-personal conflict and a breadth of knowledge on institutional procedures because of my work at Scripps. I am proud of the work I have put into the position, and the time that has gone into supporting students.

Before I even knew it, it was December 2020. The fall semester was over, and more importantly, it was the one-year anniversary of my friend’s passing. There are a million things I face each day that make me miss her. One big thing is student advocacy, because she taught me everything I know, and was my biggest supporter. I am someone who emotionally invests in advocacy work, and this can result in somewhat regular feelings of burnout, and she was always the person I turned to with that. Her support meant the most out of everyone in my life because she was there working alongside me. In a time of so much grief, I have accepted that grief doesn’t end, and I have found myself thinking of happy memories more often. I have struggled, however, to make decisions about my path in student advocacy without her support and input. I have spent so much time trying to imagine exactly what she would have said, but even when I think I know what that is, it just isn’t the same. At the end of 2020, I was finally able to acknowledge that she was part of what made student advocacy exciting for me, and what kept me going through each burnout. I have struggled to maintain my pace in her absence.  

I had to change something.

I wasn’t sure what the next chapter would look like, but I took the plunge anyway. When I saw the announcement go out about my position opening up at the end of fall, instead of feeling sad or defeated, I felt lighter. I need to chase a new challenge in advocacy work, to reenergize my excitement, and to do something new to fully accept that the rest of my journey will be without my friend. If that counts as failing or giving up in someone else’s book, that’s okay with me.

I am excited to say that in July, I’ll begin my term as a Student Representative on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at the Botanical Society of America. I look forward to contributing to a new vision of science, where every kid has someone to look up to.

Microbial community analysis- best practices

Note: This is one of three blog posts written for the Ecology of Microbial Symbioses (BOT 612, Spring 21). Thank you to my cousin Abir for feedback!

Knight, R., Vrbanac, A., Taylor, B.C. et al. Best practices for analysing microbiomes. Nat Rev Microbiol 16, 410–422 (2018). https://doi-org.eres.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/10.1038/s41579-018-0029-9

In their 2018 review, Knight et al. set out to develop a comprehensive review of the current understanding of microbiome analysis methods and present a clear set of best practices for other researchers. Most methods look at change over time, or differences between two microbiomes in structure, composition, and/or variation. Design must be specific to the question being asked, and account for if you are considering change over time, or differences at one time point. Choosing a sample size has been a challenge within the literature, so Knight et al. recommends looking at similar published studies for guidelines. Controls need to be considered as well, because there is a lot of opportunity for confounding factors. Confounding factors can be accounted for using nested statistical tests. Historically, animals have been used as models for humans, but depending on the choice of model, there are characteristics of animals that contribute to biases in experimental design. A major goal of scientific research is that it is reproducible, so technical variation can be problematic.


Knight et al. examined three main genomic analyses methods and laid out the pros and cons for each (Table 1).

Table 1 from Knight et al. 2018

(Table 1 from Knight et al. 2018)

They also created a flow chart to help researchers determine which method might be most suitable depending on their overall question or goal and connect that to deblurring/sorting tools and appropriate analyses (Figure 2).

Figure 2 from Knight et al. 2018

(Figure 2 from Knight et al 2018)

The authors conclude that if budget is not an issue, metagenomics is the way to go. If that is not feasible, marker gene sequencing can be used to gain a basic understanding of the community.


One of the key measures for describing microbial communities is variation. Alpha variation is variation within sample. Specific measures of alpha variation can measure species richness or be an index that combines richness and evenness. Beta variation is across samples. Beta variation can be represented in both quantitative and qualitative ways. Bray-Curtis and similar metrics rely on quantitative abundance data, whereas UniFrac and similar metrics are qualitative measures of presence or absence of features. Beta diversity is typically visualized as a principal component analysis (PCA), which reflects complex data in a two-dimension graph, where distance between points indicates dissimilarity and color can indicate belonging to different samples or categories. Traditional statistical tests like ANOVA are not appropriate because of high false discovery rates, which is why Knight et al. recommend isometric log ration transform to test for differences between communities.

Microbial community data can be analyzed to a higher level. Knight et al. connects the higher-level analyses to different components of the central dogma of molecular biology (Figure 3).

Figure 3 from Knight et al. 2018

(Figure 3 from Knight et al. 2018)

In this comprehensive review, Knight et al. showed not only the best practices based on the current research, but also highlighted the potential pitfalls in community descriptions and the key areas where more work is needed, including sample sizes, functional profiles and cost-effective metagenomics methods.

The Birds and The Bats

Note: This is one of three blog posts written for the Ecology of Microbial Symbiosis (BOT 612, Spring 21). Thank you to my cousin Abir for feedback!

Comparative Analyses of Vertebrate Gut Microbiomes Reveal Convergence between Birds and Bats. Se Jin Song, Jon G. Sanders, Frédéric Delsuc, Jessica Metcalf, Katherine Amato, Michael W. Taylor, Florent Mazel, Holly L. Lutz, Kevin Winker, Gary R. Graves, Gregory Humphrey, Jack A. Gilbert, Shannon J. Hackett, Kevin P. White, Heather R. Skeen, Sarah M. Kurtis, Jack Withrow, Thomas Braile, Matthew Miller, Kevin G. McCracken, James M. Maley, Vanessa O. Ezenwa, Allison Williams, Jessica M. Blanton, Valerie J. McKenzie, Rob KnightmBio Jan 2020, 11 (1) e02901-19; DOI: 10.1128/mBio.02901-19

Song et al. compared the gut microbiome of a wide range of vertebrates to look for patterns. They analyzed 315 mammals and 491 birds. They took gut samples and used the PCR NGS method to extract data. Instead of using data from other scientists to help a computer program group their data into “operational taxonomic units” based on some degree of similarity, the researchers here chose to look at similarities and differences of the amplicon sequence variants themselves, without using grouping methods. They examined diversity within each species and diversity among all species. They also examined if any microbes were specific to one or a few species.

            They found that the microbiome was generally clustered by host class, meaning that there were similarities between the microbiomes of species within each host class. The finding that they focused on in most of their paper was the significant similarity between bats and birds, in that bats were clustered closer to birds than any of the other mammals or vertebrates. They argued that these similarities could be attributed to a few factors.

  1. Generalist microbes

            First, when they looked at if the microbes in each microbiome was specific to one or a few species, they found that the microbiome of bats and birds did not have many of those specific relationships. Since they didn’t have microbes specific to themselves, meaning that their microbiome was made up of more “general” microbes (i.e. generalist), it makes sense that two groups with mostly generality microbes would be similar to each other.

  • Flight

            Second, birds and bats fly, so Song et al. hypothesized that flight might have something to do with the generalist microbes and therefore the similar microbiomes. To test this, they analyzed differences between flighted and flightless birds and bats. They found that flighted birds and bats had more generalist microbes than flightless mammals, and to a lesser degree, more generalist microbes than flightless birds. They argued that flighted birds and bats might have more generalist microbes because flight allows them to live in a wide range of environments, and as a result, they are exposed to a variety of microbes that may end up in their gut. Flighted species have to maintain their lightness and tend to have shorter intestines with less surface area that interacts with oxygen. The microbes that survive in their guts would need to be able to survive in the absence of oxygen. Flight also takes a lot of energy, so the microbiome would need to take in nutrients at a rate that supports the energy needs of their host.

  • Immune system genes

            Third, birds and bats have fewer genes that contribute to an immune system than the average species. This may mean that both do not need the very specific microbes to survive pathogens that they run into.

  • Convergent evolution

            Fourth, they share characteristics like the producing uric acid, which suggests that there may be some convergent evolution at play.

Song et al. concluded that more work is needed to draw more specific and certain conclusions about the microbiome similarity between birds and bats. They noted that their research shows the importance of studying microbiomes in thinking about questions of evolution.

The soil microbial community is alive! (the BONCAT-FACS method)

Note: This is the first of three blog posts written for the Ecology of Microbial Symbiosis (BOT 612, Spring ’21). Thank you to my cousin Abir for feedback!

Couradeau, E., Sasse, J., Goudeau, D. et al. Probing the active fraction of soil microbiomes using BONCAT-FACS. Nat Commun 10, 2770 (2019). https://doi-org.eres.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/10.1038/s41467-019-10542-0

Couradeau et al. set out to develop a method to help scientists doing microbial community descriptions identify what in their soil sample is alive. Their method is an extension of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method, which uses a primer to mark a region of genetic information, which can then be copied many times, and next generation sequencing (NGS), which converts the copies into information that can be analyzed for different measures of diversity. One of the key drawbacks of this method is that PCR results in copies of the specific region from any DNA in a sample, which means it does not know what DNA came from living vs dead microbes. As you might imagine, knowing what is alive in the soil is key to making an informed prediction about how the microbial community is contributing to interactions aboveground.

The biorthogonal non-canonical amino acid tagging and fluorescence-activated cell sorting (BONCAT-FACS) method involves incubating the microbial community in a specific compound that living microbes will incorporate into new proteins. After an appropriate amount of time has passed, the researcher introduces a fluorescent dye which reacts with that compound, so that the living microbes end up “tagged” with a green glow. Then, a cell sorting laser uses information about the wavelength of the green glow to separate the tagged microbes from everything else. After separation, they used the PCR/NGS method as previously explained.

To show that their method was solid, Couradeau et al. tested two different soil samples and two different incubation times. Their analysis showed that while this method still has biases, it is relatively quick, and can be reasonably repeated. They note that the method needs to be tested on a wider array of soil conditions and incubation times.

Figure 2 from Courdeau et al. 2019

They also note that the results from their method was generally similar to the PCR NGS results from what portion of the microbial community was able to be cultured or grown in the typical microbiology lab methods. This is important because besides discussions about living vs dead portions of the microbial community, scientists have also discussed how methods that involve culturing the microbial community can leave out the microbes that typically do not grow well in those conditions.

I thought this paper was interesting and hope to see it repeated in a variety of soil contexts. The authors of this paper also did not provide any kind of analysis of their results in terms of what their data might mean for aboveground interactions, so I hope future papers with this method also try to connect the dots between the data they get and how that might impact other parts of the ecosystem.

Life Update: I’m a doctoral candidate!

It has been a long and challenging semester, one where I have not had a lot of free time for self reflection and updating my blog. That said, I do have news: I am officially a doctoral candidate, after passing my comprehensive exam on April 8th!

April 8th was a particularly auspicious day, as it is also Sicily’s adoption anniversary, and this year marked her fourth Gotcha Day with me! I’ve also received exciting news regarding funding for my project! I’m also moving to a different part of Honolulu.

I plan to write more about the experiences I’ve had recently, including my comprehensive exam, which was equally exciting and terrifying. For now, here’s a flower sketch I made to manage my stress during this time:

Why I don’t leave my experiences at the door

CW: COVID19, grief, prejuidice

**This was written a month ago. I am happy I can publish it at a time when COVID19 vaccines have been announced, and may be available as soon as next spring.

The day that I learned a family member passed from virus complications was also a day I had to teach. The phone call came at 7 AM. I left for school at 8:30 AM. I went to class that morning, and mechanically plugged in my laptop and fired up my power point. I remember saying to my students, “It’s a short lab day today, so we’re just going to push through it.” It ended up being a very short day, and yet, I didn’t want to leave the isolated reality of my classroom. I answered emails. I rearranged the fridge. I labeled things until there was nothing left to label.

Though I had told people around me about my relative before, for two days, I told no one about his passing. I had this sudden sense that my grief was too much of a burden for those around me, even if I was important to them. All of the casual conversations and funny memes and laughter that I had participated in for the last 8 months, all to cope with this reality, no longer held any appeal to me. Then, there was a shift inside me, as I realized that not speaking would not change the outcome, and everything bubbled out of me.

I did not tell my students about my relative. I believe higher education is a good place for students to practice workplace appropriate relationships, and that starts with the behavior being modeled by educators. But not telling my students about my private life is different than pretending that when I entered that classroom, my private life stopped impacting me. If my students had asked if I was okay, I would have said, “Not really. This is a hard time for me, but I have the support I need.”

Carved pumpkin in surgical mask and plastic face shield sitting on a decorative rock.
A coping mechanism courtesy of someone in the neighborhood, dealing with a very strange Halloween.

In STEM, there is a pervasive idea that it is possible and desirable for people to be “objective.” People are not objective. Research on implicit bias has shown that even when we make every effort to be objective, we can always have biases so ingrained and subconscious that we never think to try to counter them. To me, objectivity has a connection with the conception of a scientist as a dispassionate and unemotional white man who only speaks in jargon. This is rooted in the idea of Western science as being “real” science (I’ve been reading about the scientific tradition of North American indigenous tribes in Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Kimmerer), and this conception of scientists excludes marginalized groups based on stereotypes about being overly emotional, highly reactive, speaking in vernacular and more (especially stereotypes about Black folx, resource on anti-black racism in STEM here: https://www.shutdownstem.com/racism-in-academia). The idea of “leaving biases at the door” had to be conceived by people whose identities were not intrinsically perceivable. Some people of color, women, disabled folx, and LGBTQIA+ folx can not leave biases at the door even if they wanted to, because they cannot shed their physical appearance or other sensory identifiers, like a speech impediment or accent. I cannot leave my identities and experiences at the door, because the perceivability of my marginalized identity is beyond my control.

I cannot leave my identities and experiences at the door, and I also do not want to. My experiences make me who I am. My experiences have contributed to the ways in which I have found and contributed to a sense of community. The most life changing friendship I have ever had came from my involvement in the disability community and student advocacy. I am not embarrassed of that. I am proud of that. My identities extend my impact beyond my immediate accomplishments, because there are people who look like me or have had similar experiences to me, and therefore through me can imagine a place for themselves in STEM. I am proud of that. I would not be where I am if I could not picture myself in STEM and academia via the experiences of others like me.

In today’s climate, there is an even more pressing reason why I won’t leave my experiences at the door. My experiences of marginalization, of grief, of frustration are the basis of my compassion. I will not pretend that I am not impacted by the current global crisis, and that grief is something I can just tamp down based on my environment. These things make me human. Seeing me as human helps my students trust in the fact that I also see them as human, and I have compassion for the reality that they have lives outside of my classroom, and that they are impacted by things beyond their control, both similar and different to what I am going through. There’s value in that.

A few weeks ago, a student asked me out of the blue if I would move a homework due date by a few days. There was a big midterm in an another course, they told me. I looked around at the class, and said, “Would it be helpful if I moved the due date to the following class to give you all time to focus on that exam?” There were numerous hesitant nods. I walked back to my desk, searching for paper to make a note on. “I know there’s a lot going on. I can make that work.”

Art Corner

“Pre-med syndrome” and what STEM/Academia can do about it

Like a lot of freshman who were into science as kids, I started college with the intention of going to medical school. To be fair, somewhere in my heart, I knew that I didn’t actually want to be a doctor. I was a few years into my sleep disorder symptoms, and my life had started to revolve around doctors and tests and appointments. I went into college as a neuroscience major, thinking that it wouldn’t disappoint anyone if I went into research and just… never applied to medical school. But even neuroscience hit too close to home, and my classes made me feel like nothing but a number or statistic, just like my doctor’s appointments did.

When I transferred to Scripps for my sophomore year, I had the opportunity to develop a new, more true, identity, and I jumped ship from neuroscience to an environmental policy major, thinking that I would go into politics. I had always loved the environment, as I’ve written about before, and I wanted to make a difference with my career. Before my sleep disorder made it’s debut, I had an interest in politics, but that major was also short lived. I had negative experiences in some non-science departments related to my accommodations, and I found that those experiences, along with the reality of politics in the US was too much stress for my already struggling body. I retreated back to the science department, and switched to Organismal Biology, which was the “catch-all” major for ecology, evolution and physiology.

I was happy in that major. I always felt very supported at the science department. Faculty made real efforts to diversify their curriculums, and when I had issues related to ableism or my health generally, faculty always made time to listen and help out. Even as I enjoyed my courses (to the degree that I could with my health at the time), I struggled to picture myself in a career post graduation. Like many disabled folx in higher education, there aren’t many popularly available examples of disabled folx with college degrees in professional settings. Intellectually, I knew the process of applying for accommodations in a workplace, but my mind drew a blank whenever I tried to think of a setting I’d feel comfortable in. In my work with DIDA, we brought some staff from the local rehabilitation office to give a career talk, but it became clear that we were not their target audience. As I continued to work with the DIDA faculty advisor on her courses, helping her ensure that the principles of UDX were being applied, I started to dream of a future where I could be like her. Until my major advisor told me not to rule out graduate school, that dream seemed too impossible, something that was simply mutually exclusive with my disability.

A pre-occupation with attending medical school is very common among freshman STEM majors, and it’s sometimes referred to as “pre-med syndrome.” As upperclassmen, we would joke that over half of the freshman STEM majors would stop being “pre-med” by the end of their first year. Some institutions see some of the harder biology courses as a way to “weed out” students who would not cut it in medical school. Talking about it in this way seems harsh, and it is, but the underlying reality is that all pre-med freshman STEM majors will not be going to medical school. The issue is that academia has focused on culling down this group through hard courses, instead of educating students on the many other available career paths.

When I got into my upper-division ecology courses, after I had already decided against medical school, the curriculum started to introduce other career paths. I had a professor who had worked for Fish and Wildlife. In the arcGIS unit, we looked at datasets created by local/state government employees on different things like the location of historic trees and critical habitat. For one course, I wrote a conservation plan proposal, like someone working for environmental consulting firm or the EPA might do.

One of the camera traps that we used for arcGIS projects. Prickly pear cactus is a fiend.
box of about 50 small yellow seed envelopes paperclipped clipped closed
A box containing only a small portion of over 300 Amsinckia sp seeds I weighed and labeled as a research assistant for Professor Thomson.

As I passed former classmates in the hallways, and thought about our diverging paths as they continued in human biology or regular biology, I wondered if they really wanted to go to medical school, or if the courses they were taking hadn’t told them about other ways to work in science. I remembered a medical student’s blog I had read while I was still in high school, particularly the entry where they announced to their followers they were dropping out of medical school with only a year or two left. I felt uncomfortable reading the comments from followers admonishing the blogger for “giving up.” To me, it seemed clear that had they known they wouldn’t be able to or want to finish, they never would have started in the first place. I suddenly felt weird about being so focused on medical school as a high schooler, and I never read the blog again so I wouldn’t have to examine my sinking certainty that the mean comments reflected a weird hyper focus among “pre-meds” that perhaps prevented them from fully considering other career options as valid.

Academia can not change the decisions students make in high school, or their home environment where they may receive or unintentionally perceive pressure to become doctors. But academia can do a better job of showing STEM students all their options, and promoting non-medicine careers instead of making students feel bad about not succeeding in designated “gate-keeping” courses. We can specifically increase our inclusion of careers in environmental science, which continues to expand and diversify, and if we do so in introductory courses, we can redirect students in a positive rather than negative way. When I taught botany courses last school year, this wasn’t something that I focused on in my own pedagogy, since those courses were popular gen-ed fulfillment choices. But as I teach an upper division microbiology course this semester, I have enjoyed integrating anecdotes about the application of microbiology in environmental science careers. While my students are far along in their degree, and have probably already made their minds up about their future, I am contributing to a broader conception of their knowledge and skillset, and if for any reason they decide against medicine in the future, they know that there is more than medicine in science, and there is always a place for everyone.

dune restoration project at a beach, sparse shrubby vegetation
A dune restoration project I ran into on a tour I took during my first visit to UH.

Additional Reading:

What do you do to encourage STEM students to consider non-medicine careers? Leave me a comment!

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