What if preschoolers of color routinely donned lab coats, examined bugs under play microscopes and enjoyed other toys that intentionally pointed them to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?
Perhaps the number of minorities in STEM fields like Jessica Ray would explode. Currently, women and minorities only represent a small fraction of the industry.
According to the March 2012 Diversity in Science and Engineering Employment In Industry InfoBrief by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, “Minority women account for 10 percent and minority men account for 15 percent of scientists and engineers working in industry, with about half of all minorities being Asian.”
“I kind of fell into engineering,” said Ray, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I enjoyed math and did well in my science classes. I think what really set me on the path to engineering was my love for puzzles and problem-solving. That more than anything is what makes an engineer an engineer.”
Ray grew up in Florissant and graduated from McCluer North High School. The 27-year-old earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering and Master of Science in Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering from WUSTL. She anticipates earning her Ph.D. from the university later this month.
Her dissertation title is “Interactions, Fate and Transport of Natural and Engineered Oxide Nanoparticles in Wastewater and Colloids in Water Treatment Systems.”
Nanoparticles (or microscopic particles) like titanium dioxide are sometimes found in food as whiteners and as additives in paints and sunscreens. Silver nanoparticles are sometimes used in household cleaning products and fabric cleaners.
Nanoparticles are also formed when products like computer and camera displays, cosmetics and batteries are manufactured.
Ray conducts research on the effects of nanoparticles on the atmosphere, aquatic environments and ultimately treatment facilities.
She is currently working on a project to modify a membrane surface used for water treatment with engineered nanomaterials to dramatically improve water treatment efficacy.
Nothing gets Ray’s juices flowing like talking about her profession.
“It's very fulfilling doing engineering-related research where you know your findings and innovations could have deep, profound impacts in your scientific community and abroad,” she said.
Still, Ray refuses to sugar coat the rigors of the field of study and profession. “An engineering degree is tough, no doubt and not for the faint of heart,” she said.
“Especially the undergraduate degree. For most programs, the general courses occur in the freshman and sophomore years and then engineering-specific courses in the junior and senior years.
Students who quit early don't make it to the engineering-specific courses. A
“They get intimidated by general courses like chemistry, biology and calculus,” Ray said. “But once you get to the more specific subject matter related to your engineering field, it's really fun and exciting work.”
Ray spends the lion’s share of her time performing experiments. Her evenings often include more work after the official workday ends.
She offered advice for students struggling with how to handle the “to be popular or smart” dilemma highlighted by author Jawanza Kunjufu.
“Think about five years from now when you most likely won't be surrounded by students who may shrug or shirk your intelligence,” Ray said. “Take care of you and take care of business.”
Ray encouraged parents of students looking for STEM opportunities to check out the National Society of Black Engineers, a professional organization she has been a member of since 2005 that offers opportunities for students as early as kindergarten. She also said to not overlook research programs at local colleges and universities.
“Washington University has an excellent outreach institute and programs set up through the engineering school, which I have participated in, where K-12 students come to my lab to conduct experiments, see demonstrations, etc.,” Ray said.
The National Science Foundation and other government agencies promoting STEM research also offer programs for young students worth considering.
“A summer job is nice, but often, these types of summer programs are overlooked,” Ray said. “Most of them involve pay for the student researchers as an added benefit.”