Helping teachers help their class

Teachers strive to inspire and empower students with the confidence and skills to change the world. I recently had the pleasure of helping one amazing teacher, Melody Tsai, to do just that.

Melody initial contacted us, saying: I initially wanted to give these books to the 10 girls in my class for an end of the year gift before going to Kindergarten. Then, I wondered what could the 5 boys in my class get. Thankfully there is a drop down menu for the boys as well! I am ecstatic! Because I am a teacher, I do have difficulty printing in colored ink as I am in a low income level school in the middle of the desert where resources to get mass colored printing can be hours away.”

…well, we can fix that! I was more than happy to print these books and ship them out to her. Melody took the time to work with us to personalize books for her entire class!

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Each book was actually made by yours truly 😉

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We didn’t have a box big enough to accommodate all the books so we had to use an old Amazon box!

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The books arrived safety and we were glad to hear that her students liked their personalized books!

One of the main goals that I strive for as a teacher is to inspire, empower, and to teach in a progressive way in hopes that students become positive, active members of society. CuSTEMized.org could not be a more perfect end of the year gift, as a keepsake, and a reminder that every one of my students has the power to change the world. Parents say they will keep it forever, the principal loves it, my co-workers thought it was such a great idea, my BTSA advisor loved it so much she passed the website along to other teachers, and of course the students loved seeing themselves featured as the main character of the story. I look forward to donating and receiving these spiral bound books every year!

– Melody Tsai
Transitional Kindergarten Teacher

We have always been providing free individual books upon request to those who cannot afford it. But Melody has inspired us to expand our Book Fund program to classrooms as well.

Let us know if you’re interested in a set of personalized books for your classroom!

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Do what you can until you can do better

I was having dinner with my friend Dan the other day, who mentioned what a big success cuSTEMized has been, as if we were some group of high-tech Silicon-valley CEOs working in those modern open space floor-plans. But I had to break it to him: we’re still just operating out of my apartment (at least it’s not my parent’s garage!). For our hardcover and softcover books, we partner with a professional manufacturer, but to keep spiral-bound books affordable, we still make them in-house…here:

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Each spiral-bound book is made by hand (by yours truly) with donated time and labor. Kamil took a picture of me after I came back from a weekend off to do a TEDxJHU talk and made a dozen books in one sitting (eesh I look tired!).

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It’s so important to offer affordable products. But until we reach the scale and volume where we can get the prices of each book down to where parents, particularly low-income graduate students such as myself, can afford to buy this non-essential item for their kids, we will just have to donate our time and labor to meet them half way.

That goes for our whole team of amazing volunteers! We’ll just have to do what we can until we can do better.

Best,
Jean

 

Instructions Not Included

I recently gave a talk at TEDxJHU on the theme of Instructions Not Included. I think the theme is an apt metaphor for life and for how cuSTEMized came to be.

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cuSTEMized started because I wanted to give something to the 2nd grade students I was teaching at the time to encourage them in STEM. But I didn’t want any generic message. I wanted a targeted, personalized message that I believe in YOU. I want YOU to continue experimenting, exploring, and learning.

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I wanted to make a personalized story for each of them. Using their name. And their appearance. Well, that was the idea. So how were we going to get the graphics? We’ll draw it. So what’s the story going to be? We’ll write it. So how were we going to code this up? We’ll figure it out. No one ever told us how to do this. No one ever gave us permission to do this. At the same time, no one ever told us we couldn’t. We put together what qualifications and skills we had. Where we lacked, we asked for help. Where we couldn’t find good help, we figured things out ourselves.

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That’s what STEM has taught us: we can always put our heads together and figure things out.  That’s why I believe STEM to be so powerful. Not every girl needs to be a scientist, but every girl, every person, should be empowered with the critical thinking skills that STEM teaches us. Because when we empower our girls with both the skills and confidence to create, they will create a brighter future.

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My talk was titled “Do art like a science! Do science like an art” and I discussed how I combined my artistic and scientific skills to make cuSTEMized. My message was simply that we all have a unique set of skills that can be used to create the change that we would like to see. I really hope that we inspire someone, somewhere, to create something.

Congrats again to all the organizing for pulling off a spectacular event. I’ll plan on sharing the video of my talk once it comes out 🙂

UPDATE: the video came out! Check it out here: https://bitly.com/cuSTEMizedTEDxTalk

Best,
Jean

JHU Leadership Symposium

I recently gave a talk at a JHU Students and Young Alumni Leadership Symposium.

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(Intended) transcript of the talk below:

Unlike the two other speakers you’ve heard from this morning, and like you all, I’m still a student! (I’m also female, but more on that later). So, I was in your shoes about 3 years ago. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school to get a PhD. When I was applying, I decided to go big or go home: I’m only going to apply to the top programs. I’m not going to sell myself short. If I don’t get in, I’ll get a job, build up my resume, and try again next year. That’s the thing about going big or going home: you have to prepare for going home. It may not seem like it now, but your most valuable commodity is time. A PhD takes a 5 to 7 year commitment now. Don’t spend it somewhere where you’re not going to be challenged and pushed.

So I apply to the top programs, which in my field like many others, meant Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Columbia. And surprisingly, I get an interview everything. Schools always ask where else you’ve applied in your application, so I wonder if that had something to do with it. But when I got to the interviews, I thought: oh crap, I’m one of the least qualified candidate. I had no papers, all my extracurriculars were art; nothing to do with science. Some people had biotech companies already. What am I doing here?

But in hindsight, that was probably largely impostor syndrome. Has anyone here heard of imposter syndrome? Yeah, it’s when you think you’re an imposter, and you only got here by mistake. So people are going to find you out and it’s only a matter of time before you’re discovered. It’s funny because I talk to PIs, Nobel laureates,  people who are doing amazing work, and they still say (in private): “I don’t know if I’m running my lab well. I don’t know if I’m doing a good job on this grant.” So some of them still have imposter syndrome! I’ve come to accept that maybe imposter syndrome isn’t something you can rationalize away. Or something you grow out of. But it’s something you just acknowledge, and let go. The thoughts and self doubt will come. But just let it go.

Long story short: I get in everywhere but decide to go to Haahvarhd.

Well actually, I did get asked a lot about why I didn’t have papers during interviews. And it was true: I did research throughout undergrad but not all research pans out. That’s just science. But despite failure, I am still pursuing graduate school so I must be a masochist or I must actually like what I’m doing! I think, despite failure, you persist if you believe in what you’re doing. What I believe in is really at the end of the day is really education, and getting people to educate themselves; providing the tools and resources to peak their curiosity and make it easier to learn and discover new things. In my research, I make bioinformatics tools that allow biologists to understand their data. I recently published a Nature methods paper for a bioinformatics tool to help biologists identify cell subpopulations. In my non-profit work, I make resources to help break gender barriers and encourage girls to go learn more about STEM.

[Casual discussion of cuSTEMized and women in STEM that I didn’t write out the transcript for in preparation for the talk]

But anyways, I ended up going to Harvard. I’m in my 3rd year of the PhD. Things I’ve learned: (1) If you figure out what you want to do and do it. No one’s going to give you permission. (2) You’re never going to have the perfect background for any job. If you have the motivation, then you have more than what most people have. If you don’t know how to do something, figure it out! And you can. That’s what you’ve spent 4 years learning at Hopkins: how to figure it out.

You’re all very talented and skilled. You can really do anything. If you don’t know how yet, you can figure it out.

One interesting question I was asked by the audience was from a man who wanted to know how he could help women in STEM. I thought that was such an important question that too often doesn’t get asked so I should just try to integrate the answer more into my talks in the future.

But, the answer is easier said than done: I think people within STEM need to help women and minorities in STEM by learning to see bias and standing up against it. But I don’t think it’s intuitive what exactly is bias, what counts as a micro-aggression, and so forth. Admittedly, unless you are “colored”, perhaps it’s hard to know that being called “colored” is not exactly complementary. Unless you are a woman in computer science, perhaps it’s hard to intuitively understand why it’s insulting when you get asked whether your boyfriend coded your work for you. As a woman, I have a better understanding, on a personal level, why it is weird to get repeatedly asked for your boss’s availability as if you were his secretary. So I’d be much faster to snap “Hey she’s not his secretary!” when I see someone treat a female student like that.

We, as people in STEM, have to stand up for each other. But that in part means learning when to stand up. So who should teach us?

On encouraging girls in STEM

Hello! I’m Jean. I’m the founder, director, and lead software developer here at cuSTEMized. And I’m also a PhD student in bioinformatics at Harvard. I do a lot of coding in my research, for cuSTEMized, and for fun.

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I was first introduced to the idea of code in 8th grade. I thought it was so cool to write some gooble gok language, and have a computer read it, understand it, and execute your wishes. And then you can even share what you’ve written with millions of people and have their computers do the same. It was just really powerful and cool.

So when I was a freshman in high school, I decided to take an introduction to Java programming class. It was my first time trying to learn programming. And I was awful! I had a really hard time understanding basic concepts like variables, objects, encapsulation. What are you talking about? This was also my first introduction to logical thinking and really framing thoughts into loops and if statements. Anyways, long story short: I did really poorly.

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I did so poorly, that at the end of the class, we got back our finals, and the teachers put a sticker on the final if they thought we should advance to the next course. I, as you probably guessed, didn’t get a sticker. And that was really demotivating. I thought: I’m trying my best. And you’re basically telling me, stop trying. Maybe this isn’t for you.

Well after some initial sadness, and some more contemplation, I got really angry. I thought: you know, you’re not going to tell me what I can and can not do. I’m not going to accept that this is not for me. So I took that next course. I still struggled, but a little less than before. Concepts became more familiar. And I just kept going. Over time, I got better. I’m still getting better.

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I think, as a society, as parents, as people within STEM, we have to be more encouraging in STEM fields particularly to those more junior who are just starting out, simply because these are really challenging fields! But encouraging doesn’t mean telling your daughter she’s so smart and so talented. Rather, it’s telling her that she can fail. She probably will fail. But she can try again.

“If you’re struggling, it’s not because you’re stupid. It’s because you’re doing something challenging and worthwhile.” – Andrew Salch (my differential equations professor after our class bombed the first exam)

Best,
Jean