Teachers are world changers

The international day of Women in Science, 11th of February, was last week. It is inspiring how an initiative that has been going on since 2016 has extended so rapidly, the number of volunteers in different associations, the variety of activities being organised and the effort of the scientific community to help to overcome the gender imbalance in STEM. Hoping to help, I have been getting involved with different associations.

The fellow Andrea Lopez del Castillo contacted the women in science giving talks at schools in with 11Feb organisation and we met to get to know each other and share our experiences in the VLC women in Tech event, organised by ACM-Women UPV. Among the speakers. The meeting showcased – among other things – associations aiming to overcome the gender imbalance and was followed by a networking session.

Overall, the speakers – among them Elena Pinilla, Pilar BernavĂ© and MĂłnica Oltra – pointed out possible causes of gender imbalance in STEM – and of the drop of female enrolment in informatics at university in the 80s – such as the fact that the laptop and electronic games became common, and they were/are more often given to boys. They clearly explained why equality and diversity are needed in STEM; if facial recognition software was only developed by Caucasian people, will it recognise other ethnicities?

Two days after, the 13th of February, I gave a talk to last year students – who are about to do important choices for their career – of IES Baleares, in Valencia. I brought a nice 3D model of one of the MOFs I am currently working with and let it in the table while loading the Powerpoint and they, quite curious, started asking what was this, I briefly explained, and let them pass it through the class while I was talking. I started my presentation with an introduction to the statistics of gender balance in STEM, pointed out possible causes – some of them inspired by the VLC tech women event –  and encouraged them to work together to overcome this problem. I have to admit that at the beginning, being aware of the agitation that feminism has driven and the political concerns of my country, I prepared slides showing only graphs to be able to tune the tone of the talk if needed. But I was amazed, all the students were paying attention from minute one, nocking their heads in agreement, the girls and the boys were smiling and agreeing when I said that science is for everyone and that imbalance is a problem for all of us and that we had to work all together to overcome it. They all were aware and I could feel that they wanted it to change. When I started telling them my personal experience in science – their science teacher Juan Becerra advised me to inspire them this way since the presence of women role models in STEM is still scarce nowadays – I could tell they were being inspired already by their teacher in every class. They would raise their hand and wait for me to tell them to speak, and their questions shocked me. I couldn’t believe that after introducing 17th-year-olds to MOFs by the first time– imagine a cube, you have the metals in the corners and the organic ligands in the arista joining it together, and inside (the pore) it is empty and you can store many things, for example medicines, like a Trojan horse – a student asked: Can the MOFs be made of any metal? –Yes- So then, if you put a metal like Gadolinium, can de be used for MRI contrast agents and theragnostic devices? – Wow, my face, that huge smile, Yes! Of course, you can, people are currently investigating this! Well done.

And another student asking – For how long has this thing of MOFs been going on? I haven´t heard of it before and It is very interesting that so many things can be stored in their pores! The students were enthusiastic, highly participative and motivated, they are already convinced to do a career in science- was joking the teacher, Juan – and they were surprised by the fact that MOFs were only first reported about 20 years ago. At the end of the talk, some of them asked for advice on the choices that they would have to make at the end of the course. I told them that studying chemistry wasn’t my first choice; but that once I started I couldn’t enjoy it more. Life has its ways, and it is never too late to make a change if you are not happy with the choices that you made.

I try to be a positive person, and motivating others in their journey is a natural part of me. What we believe is powerful and somehow it predisposes us to do different things. Believing in someone is powerful and sometimes gives us the strength that we do not find at the time. I tend to motivate people and let them know that I believe in them, because I have been quite lucky in my life, and I have always had the support of my family and my friends. Besides that, I had some of the most amazing teachers and mentors, and yes, probably I had others that weren´t so good, but I always think more of the first ones, those are the ones that got to my heart and I feel extremely thankful that these people crossed my life. Somehow, I try to give back to the world a little bit of what was given to me.

Alex was my science teacher since I was 12 until 16 years old. I remember his passion for science, which together with his special way of making chemistry and physics classes (and homework) fun, made me have an extreme interest in science. He also brought us to the lab, made us do reports on the experiments like if we were top scientist, and he made us think. But really think, not just learn a bunch of equations or definitions.

During my Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, the two teachers I think the most of are Alberto (Biology First Year) and Tomás (Inorganic Chemistry, 3RD year). They had at least two things in common with Alex, they made us think, and we were not just an exam grade to them. They cared about our learning process. Alberto made us write little communication reviews for which we had to do literature research in scientific journals and we had to do oral presentations in class given the topic of the week. He will send us feedback through the online platform, encouraging and motivating feedback. He let us repeat some of the essays at the end of the course if we wanted to improve our grade. Tomás did seminars in which we had to go to the blackboard and solve exercises and reply to questions in front of all the class. And while that was scary with other teachers who could make fun of us for not knowing the answers, if we didn´t know the answers with Tomás he would ask another question that will help us find it. He taught us to ask ourselves the right questions to be able to find the answer, or at least that´s what I think. Approximately one month after the written exam he would perform an oral exam that will only enhance the final grading. Again, his questions made us think and find the answers by ourselves.

This post goes to all the good teachers and mentors; you make the difference in so many lives. Thank you. Please, keep inspiring. And to my teachers, mentors and my PhD Supervisor, Ross Forgan; Thank you for being encouraging and caring about your students. Thank you for helping us to grow and believe in ourselves.

Education does not transform the world,

Education changes people,

People transform the world,

Paulo Freire

Thank you for reading,

Isa

Teachers are world changers
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