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Debra Yourick Receives 2021 SfN Science Educator Award

November 8, 2021
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Each year, the Society for Neuroscience recognizes outstanding neuroscientists who have strongly added to public education and awareness about the field. The Dana Foundation sponsors these awards. This year’s award was presented to Debra Yourick, Ph.D., the director of science education and fellowship programs at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Along with managing an ever-expanding pipeline of STEM internships and fellowships, Yourick helped create and continues to manage, extend, and improve the Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science (GEMS) program, an Army-sponsored, summer STEM enrichment program for middle- and high-school students that takes place in participating Army research laboratories and engineering centers.

Q: How did you get started, combining research, education, and outreach?

Yourick: Early in my career at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, I expressed an interest in mentoring a high school student. One was selected for me and sent to my laboratory. I was dismayed at not being allowed to pick my mentee, and expressed my feelings to the program leadership. They strongly suggested that I help the freshly named local program coordinator, Dr. Marti Jett, in our high school intern program. This was the beginning of ultimately collaborating for 20 years, and through her mentorship, finding a lasting passion for outreach.

We had much in common, including a willingness, in our spare time, to knock on many potential mentors’ doors. With other like-minded team members and leaders, we greatly expanded high school and college programs available at that time—and we also discovered these early programs’ flaws in providing opportunities for underserved groups who had few underpinning courses and science experiences to enable them to take part in internships. We widened our outreach, offering more of our expertise and time, sometimes even in organizing, to many local science fairs, where we connected with diverse groups of young scientists, middle to high school, from all backgrounds.

We then invited these young people and other STEM program applicants to participate in something new, a small start-up called “Student Training in Advanced Research Skills,” or STARS, with an appropriate stipend for encouragement. The early participants, also called STARS, raved about the program and each year asked for more until we developed a three-year program with increasingly more sophisticated schedules of hands-on experiments, in our own labs, for some real resume-building science. In 1999, we found a funding opportunity and made a 72-hour sprint to the due date for our first National Institutes of Health (NIH) Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) grant application, thankfully the first of five funded awards for me since that time.

With support from the first two SEPAs, we together used our laboratories and connections to Army leaders to create, characterize, and evaluate what became the GEMS program, which now includes 17 Army sites nationwide. We also offered our expertise in creating the US Army Educational Outreach Program in 2004/5. Many thanks go to the NIH SEPA leadership for allowing another federal agency to receive such funding. The NIH SEPAs pushed us to fully evaluate the fledgling program’s outcomes to include testing whether we could start programs in new locations and still succeed, research not usually funded by the US Army. Our Army leaders readily understood the value of sustaining our program based on these outcome data. All in all, both institutions have helped, and continue to guide and advance, a diverse group of young scientists.

Because of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) 10 years ago, my neurotoxicology and neuropharmacology work was curtailed, and Dr. Jett left WRAIR and moved on to other research and leadership goals.

Since then, along with other leadership duties at WRAIR, my wonderfully talented teams and I have worked to take the GEMS model, and its core idea of using near-peer mentors as the front-line teachers, into underserved biology classrooms. We have seen significant success in expanding science learning and mentorship in these classrooms, in a form that we think could be ‘planted’ and sustained in classrooms across the nation.

What is most satisfying about connecting to so many young people this way? What was most surprising?

It’s satisfying to see so many of my research interns and fellows, from high school students to postdoctoral fellows, find a fulfilling career path, mostly on their own but with some of the building blocks that came from our outreach and research together.

What is surprising is my career-long, expanding realization of all the intractable barriers that prevent people from seeing science as exciting and important as I do. Science should be part of everyone’s life, especially considering our health and environmental crises, which require open and informed minds. So many don’t experience it with the awe it deserves, like many of my classmates during my childhood in rural Michigan, and now in classrooms when we first arrive to create a new, and hopefully better, learning environment.

Without inspiring classroom experiences and home and life exposures that reveal its beauty, most people see science as incomprehensible, anxiety inducing—or even boring—when science should reveal to them how to live life well within the ever-changing world around us. Somehow, despite parents who didn’t go to college and few funds to go myself, I found my way to science. My team and I would like to help more children develop the love of science while making them better-informed citizens—and for those who want to take it further, help encourage them along sustainable pathways to STEM careers.

How important is it to you to do outreach?

It’s incredibly important. Over the years, I’ve seen some science classrooms where absolutely no teaching or learning is taking place, for many reasons. What an extraordinary crisis for learning and developing! There are competing concerns everywhere, like poverty, health and behavioral issues, and ever-changing family circumstances, and the number of students in these classrooms is almost always above 30. Moreover, the classrooms are also ill-equipped, especially for science teaching. Something needs to change and very specifically in American classrooms, since our children fall well behind their international counterparts.

Our combined goal now is to elevate STEM classroom education for a diverse group of students. Our current outreach with near-peer mentors creates an equipped classroom within a classroom, by groups of six students each, with a new kind of positive distraction from the usual textbook-based learning—a college-aged mentor, also a role model, who can teach them science in an exciting, hands-on, inquiry-centered way—all with the cooperation and involvement of the classroom teacher. The near-peer mentors/teachers themselves benefit, gaining understanding and exposure to teaching in new ways. Our recent classroom results are very positive and will shortly be published.

Soon, we hope that our mentors can also earn college credit for their classroom outreach, and that their institutions of higher learning will sustain or expand these types of programs. Our current research centers on developing a sustainable model for STEM education based on collaboration between secondary schools and our exceptional partnering universities, currently four Maryland minority-serving institutions.

Stay tuned.

Has your outreach changed this year?

It’s changed a tremendous amount and, frankly, mostly in the silver-lining category. Our recent paper in the Journal of STEM Education talks about what the students missed in their virtual experience—learning science side by side with new friends and connections and using specific laboratory equipment—but participants still loved the program and we, as a STEM education group, learned how expansive our programs could become, via virtual, hybrid and asynchronous learning while still carrying on in-person sessions.

We have increased our GEMS enrollment goals for summer 2022 by 35 percent because we think we can reach more young people in these new ways and still offer challenging science along with a small stipend to replace potentially lost summer income.

Photo of people standing under outdoor tent booths
Talking with parents and participants during a GEMS hybrid session in August 2021. Photo courtesy of Miguel Rodriguez and Joaddan Villard.

Did you have a model or a mentor for this work? Have any advice for fellow scientists on reaching out?

Dr. Marti Jett has been my mentor from the start and the past 10 years of separation made little difference to the massive inspiration she provided me over the prior 20 years; we’re working together again, so watch out. It will come as no surprise that my advice is to listen, as mentor or mentee, collaborate without hesitation when the science matters to you, and make and meet big goals even when you feel like keeping your head down and below the crossfire! Find teams of forward thinkers from multiple backgrounds and generations; some of our failures led to the best inspiration, so just sit down, talk it through together and find a new strategy.

Who was invaluable and irreplaceable and why?

Even through those troubled times of low funding and a lack of support for our work, Ms. Swati Ramadorai stayed with me to make our summer GEMS program extraordinary, figured out how she could help in other programs and educated herself on all things in the government nonsense category, while railing at most of it, to manage the ins and outs of finances in the oddest system on the planet. She also made the tactical alliances that allowed our STEM programming to flourish. When my other work overwhelmed what I wanted to do in STEM education, Swati filled the holes in my programmatic framework so it would still stand.

Another longstanding and fantastic team member is the understated Dr. Edgar Rowton, the mastermind behind the GEMS Zoo and much more. The ever-present tarantulas of every type, along with other impressive ambassadors for the natural world—scorpions, fish, a gecko, chameleons, hissing cockroaches, and much more—have long been part of the GEMS experience. Ed helped create other unusual STEM modules. What’s inside a termite’s gut?, a module published in The Science Teacher, is an example of his collaboration with Ms. Asia Liza Morales, another STEM star in a near-peer mentor role and another graduate of my life-changing undergraduate alma mater, Kalamazoo College.  Asia Liza and many other near-peer mentors and scientists make this and other GEMS modules and programs the best at exciting young minds.

Dr. Margery Anderson, Dr. Laura Tenenbaum and Dr. Emily Kuehn paved the way in GEMS novel implementations, evaluation, and publication. Many others made our programs succeed in their roles as dedicated mentors, near-peer mentors, resource teachers and USAEOP staff.

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