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Marcellina Wiertek, a Barrett Honors College student studying microbiology with a concentration in medical biology, now knows that she wants to pursue a career in medicine but her goals weren’t always that clear to her.
“In high school, I felt like I had received preparation for picking a college and doing scholarship applications, but there was less of a direction on the career aspect,” she said. And, after conferring with her peers, she realized she was not alone.
“Talking to some of my friends, they felt the same way. We knew we liked science and were good at it, but we had no idea what you could actually do with it,” she said. In addition, her friends said their younger siblings were in the same situation.
She entered Arizona State University as an honors student in 2017 and, in addition to her major classes, began independently studying an alternative approach to education espoused by Jacek Kuroń, a prominent democratic leader within the People’s Republic of Poland and an education theorist.
“His stance was to make education hands-on, something where we encourage every individual to follow what they are interested in, instead of just sidelining it,” Wiertek said.
Wiertek decided not to sit on the sidelines, but to actively pursue her interest in science. Her goal is to attend medical school and become a neonatologist. She also is interested in teaching and may seek out a residency leader position.
Since 2017, she has volunteered at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa. She works in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where she assists with caring for newborns. She initially volunteered to gain some exposure to the medical field and to see if she would enjoy it.
“I continue with volunteering because I love the position that I am in and enjoy seeing the activities in the NICU while comforting babies that are often extremely disoriented or in pain due to the nature of their hospital stay,” she said.
Now, Wiertek is trying to help high school students get off the sidelines and discover what they can do in a career in science. Last month, Wiertek hosted and participated in a STEM (Science, Technology, Education, and Math) panel at her high school alma mater, Seton Catholic Preparatory High School in Chandler, AZ.
The event was meant to help students learn what they could do with science-based degrees and to encourage female students to pursue academic degrees and professional careers in science.
The panel feature Wiertek and other young women majoring in science fields who spoke about the underrepresentation of women in STEM and the challenges they face.
“We’d like to give students the perspective of, first of all, being a woman in STEM and anything that has been hard about it: choosing the field, facing any sort of adversity, what to expect, or the unseen challenges, the good and the bad,” Wiertek said.
And pointing out the good and the bad is important to Wiertek, because she recalls attending similar events that were just focused on success and glossed over the dedication and time it takes to become a STEM professional.
Wiertek said it is important for schools to present as much accurate information as possible to help students make informed decisions about whether STEM is the right path, without intimidating them.
She hopes the panel will inspire the beginning of a club at Seton that will provide information, resources, mentoring, networking, assistance with applying to college, and job and internship opportunities.
“This is incredibly important because the process of discovering whether a career is right for a student requires some real-life experience, and it is far more efficient to test careers and make decisions in high school or college through such experiences rather than to find out after graduation,” Wiertek said.
David Sorkin, assistant principle at Seton, said Wiertek’s efforts to inform students about opportunities in STEM dovetails nicely with work the school is doing to develop a STEM-based curriculum.
“Four years ago, we launched a program called ‘The Pathway to Innovation,’ creating a four-year sequence for our students. Now, we have a dedicated pathway to innovation, science and education,” he said.
The sequence includes four years of engineering in addition to four years of English, science, mathematics and theology. Sorkin acknowledged that it is an intense academic load but it helps students identify the possibilities in the STEM field.
Sorkin said he believes panels like the one Wiertek participated in “create additional avenues and outlets for students to see the connections from the classroom to the broader world.”
Story by Ryan Wadding, a Barrett Honors College student majoring in political science.