Friday, June 9, 2017

Hear It from a Girl Scout: I Would Rather Be the Researcher Than the Enthusiast

Since 2013, in collaboration with Arconic Foundation, Girl Scouts of the USA has awarded ten Girl Scouts the Chuck McLane Scholarship, which is available to Gold Award recipients who complete projects related to science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). Earlier this month, we announced that Ashley Martin of Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama was a recipient of the Chuck McLane Scholarship for 2017. She will attend the University of Georgia as a Bernard Ramsey Scholar majoring in genetics. Check out her story and what she has to say about her experience at Girl Scouts.

Tell us about your STEM-related Gold Award project and your experience at Girl Scouts.

My project is a curriculum that gives a mostly unbiased overview of genetic engineering and genetically modified foods and encourages people to develop their own opinions. The curriculum is a three-day unit study, including materials to cover the scientific, economic, social, and environmental impacts of GMO crops. It also provides an overview of basic genetics to facilitate understanding of more advanced material. The target audience is a high school–level biology class, advanced middle school students, and homeschoolers. Before making the materials available freely on the Internet, I conducted a small pilot class of 14 people and administered pre- and post-course quizzes to measure the program’s impact. The pilot class went well, with a 43 percent increase between an initial background quiz and the final quiz. This curriculum is available at and

For me, this was a perfect capstone to an incredible experience in Girl Scouts. I started ten years ago, joining a Brownie troop in Pittsburgh before moving to my new home in Huntsville, Alabama. Girl Scouts has given me opportunities to volunteer and try things I would never be able to do on my own, like spending the night in a science museum. My favorite part was making signs and selling cookies every year. As I got older, I started taking on more of a leadership and mentor role, helping my little sister’s troop whenever I could. Being a Girl Scout taught me a lot about the type of person I want to be.

What advice would you give to other girls who are in the process of earning their Gold Award?

Don’t give up! I will confess that at various times my Gold Award project felt overwhelming or impossible. But rather than focus on the whole thing, I learned to break it up into smaller pieces, and then lay out a plan for completing each piece. After that, it was much easier to just focus on and follow the plan. I didn’t need to have a solution for everything at the same time; I just had to tackle the next step in front of me.

How do you take the lead?

The Girl Scouts, my Journeys, and the Gold Award have been great opportunities to take on a leadership role in the more traditional sense. While those were amazing experiences that taught me a lot about myself and the type of person I want to be, I also think leadership doesn’t just happen in those big moments. I also work hard to lead by example in my daily life, often in simple ways. I treat others with respect and compassion. I try to be a good listener, and a good friend, for everyone I know. When someone needs help, I’m the first to jump in and the last to leave. I think this type of leadership on a small scale is just as important as the more traditional examples.

Was there a particular event or moment in your childhood that sparked your interest in STEM?

Ever since I read about an experiment where scientists created cats that glow in the dark, I have been fascinated by biology research. I loved to learn about advancements in genetic engineering and how it has the potential to solve problems affecting both food and medicine. In ninth grade, I realized that I would rather be the researcher making these advancements than the enthusiast reading about them. Ever since then, it has been my goal to be a scientist.

What does the Chuck McLane Scholarship mean to you?

I was incredibly honored to learn I had won the scholarship. Before I applied, I looked over the online descriptions of the previous winners and was blown away by their passion for STEM and the scope of their Gold Award projects. To be considered an equal to these amazing and talented women is humbling. I only hope that I can inspire someone the way that they inspired me!

Where are you going to college, and what STEM studies are you interested in focusing on?

I will be attending the University of Georgia in the fall, majoring in genetics. I have already completed a lot of the freshman biology and chemistry courses through dual enrollment in high school, so I’m excited to jump right in to higher level biology and genetics classes. Ideally, I also want to start conducting research as a freshman, so that I can augment classroom learning with practical experience in a working laboratory setting. I hope to minor in computer science or bioinformatics, as genetics serves as an incredibly complex “big data” problem that will require novel computational analysis methodologies. This will give me the most solid foundation possible for future education and careers.

In the long term, I intend to earn my PhD in genetics and become a researcher in academia or private industry. I would love to work at a cutting-edge biotechnology start-up that uses genetic engineering to improve medicine, agriculture, or pharmaceuticals.

Do you have any female heroes in STEM?

I have always admired the work and life of Marie Curie. She did groundbreaking work in chemistry and physics related to radioactivity during an age when higher education for women was very rare. That work led to a Nobel Prize (twice!) and the discovery of two atomic elements. She then took that science and developed mobile X-ray units used to treat soldiers on the front in World War I. That, to me, is the ultimate goal for any scientist: to not only advance human understanding, but also have a positive impact on society.

What advice would you give to other girls who want to pursue STEM careers?

Just do it! I’m lucky to have had a lot of supportive people in my life who believed in me and taught me I could do anything I put my mind to. But even if you don’t have people in your corner, believe in yourself. I always struggled with math, but made it through college-level Calculus I and II in high school with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. It was hard work, but incredibly rewarding once I realized I really could do it. Now I know the sky is the limit.

From 2013 through 2017, the Arconic Chuck McLane Scholarship Program has provided a $10,000 scholarship to two girls a year. Learn more about these young women and the other Arconic Chuck McLane Scholarship recipients.