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Lakeridge grad a rising science star


Allyson Brown says women role models encouraged her to pursue STEM subjects

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Lakeridge High School graduate Allyson Brown recently earned her bachelors at the University of Southern California.Lakeridge High School graduate Allyson Brown firmly latched onto what she calls “sciencey things” in elementary school, but it took a community of supporters to make her into a scientist.

Brown’s parents, teachers and mentors, many of them women, supported her journey to success in science, an achievement all too rare among women in the United States. William MacKenzie

Technological innovation accounted for almost half of U.S. economic growth over the past 50 years, according to Change the Equation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization trying to foster widespread literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Looking forward, almost all of the fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will require at least some background in STEM. Yet the U.S. is not maximizing the STEM skills of the girls and women who represent about half the U.S. population.

Despite women comprising almost 60 percent of today’s college attendees, only about three in 10 STEM degrees are awarded to a woman. A report from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration concluded that women with STEM degrees are less likely to work in a STEM field.

Brown is different.

In the second grade she was determined to become a paleontologist.

“I knew everything about dinosaurs, where they lived and when they lived,” she said. “I loved, loved, dinosaurs.”

Next she wanted to be an astronaut.

“I knew everything about all the different space missions, how all the rockets went together,” she said. “I built little model rocket ships and did a report on the Saturn 5 rocket.”

She even pestered her parents to take her to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“They still had the original Mission Control for the Apollo missions,” she recalled. “It’s extraordinary that we got to the moon with those old, chunky computers and a little picture of a spacecraft moved by hand across a board.”

Outside school, she was equally inquisitive.

“I could never get through a children’s museum, a science museum, or an art history museum in under an hour because I wanted to read all the information about everything,” she said. “It used to drive my parents nuts.”

In 2012, this spirited, self-confident scientist with an insatiable curiosity graduated cum laude and as one of 15 Global Scholars from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s in neuroscience and a minor in forensics and criminality.

Brown is in the vanguard of young women changing the equation. Her parents — her dad working in advertising and her mother in non-profits and event planning — didn’t have a strong science background but encouraged her to pursue her personal interests. Brown, unswayed by classmates who were less focused on academics, charged ahead.

“As a kid I don’t know that I ever really clocked in that science and math programs weren’t cool, “ she said, “but I don’t think it was ever something I noticed or cared about.”

Some of her elementary school teachers were flexible and encouraged her to pursue her passions. In middle school, however, her teachers pretty much stuck to their lesson plans and “were a little less open to students who were scientifically enthusiastic,” she said.

But there were other paths to satisfy her interest in science. In the seventh grade, Brown joined an all-girls LEGO Robotics team, the Kung Fu Robots, coached by a female engineer. The team made it all the way to an Intel-sponsored state LEGO Robotics tournament.

“It was fun meeting up with other girls interested in all this,” Brown said.

During the summer before eighth grade, Brown joined a two-week, Intel-sponsored Girl Scout program called “Design and Discover,” an inquiry-based, hands-on engineering and technology project developed to encourage and enhance middle and high school girls’ experiences in STEM.

Led by engineers, the 25 girls in the program got an eclectic education. The first week focused on engineering and design.

“We’d have days where we would take apart radios with hammers and screwdrivers and then talk about what the different parts were and how they went together,” Brown said. “We talked about different designs, why they had been designed that way. We talked about structures, such as how a building is designed, how do you combine aesthetics with the actual necessities of the building.

“We talked about how ships worked, how water affects the way something works. We went to a company that does prototypes and talked about the prototype process.”

In the camp’s second week, the girls came up with their own projects and made prototypes.

“We talked about going from your original idea, drawing out the dimensions, and then building it,” she said. “We worked through the issues. What about this would work, what would not? We talked about how you come up with ideas for inventions.”

Brown’s Design and Discover project was a 10-foot wheelchair ramp which went on to win third place in its division and the Herbert Hoover Young Engineers Award for overall engineering project at the Intel Northwest Science Expo presented by Portland State University for fifth- to 12th-grade students.

Enthused by the Design and Discovery program, Brown signed up for a two-week Intel-sponsored Girl Scout Engineering and Exploration camp held the summer before her ninth-grade year.

The camp work was stimulating, but the greatest gift Brown got from the camps was encouragement from two women involved in the program. One was Ruthie Farmer, then the Girl Scout Columbia River Council’s innovative program manager.

The other, Jill Barrett Parisher, managed the camps and, according to Brown, transformed her life.

“Jill was a fantastic person who really noticed the people this sort of camp meant something to,” Brown said. “Some of the kids were kind of just there, but I and a few of my friends were really into it; this was something that was really important, and she made sure we were involved in everything.”

Later that summer, when an overnight Girl Scout Destination camp needed help, Parisher recruited Brown to mentor the campers.

“It was people like her, who were in the field, who made a real difference,” Brown said. “She knew how important it was to pick out girls interested in science who, with a little encouragement, would get really sucked into the whole thing.”

Parisher treasured her time with the girls and her admiration of Brown was mutual.

“The Girl Scouts believed firmly that the best way to get girls interested in engineering was to get them interested in engineers; as a female engineer, I was held up as a role model, a concept that I still find baffling,” Parisher said.

Parisher recently went through pictures from that camp.

“She’s so young and proud of what she built and created and destroyed; several things we did in camp were to take apart engineered items to get the girls familiar with what the insides looked like.,” Parisher said. “The difference between the 2003 pictures and the 2006 Destination pictures, where Allyson is helping another girl with her work, or performing in a skit with a group, is to watch a girl become a young lady, confident in herself and her knowledge.”

The result — Brown took Honors and advanced placement classes in a broad range of subjects, including English, history, chemistry, physics, biology and physiology at Lakeridge.

When she graduated from high school, she had earned a weighted 4.0 grade point average (a 4.3 when you took into account the A.P. classes). That meant she had a good shot at getting into a top-flight college, where she planned to study genetics research and engineering. After much soul searching, she picked the University of Southern California.

“I ended up picking USC because they were the ones who seemed most interested in my success and the most enthusiastic about me coming,” she said.

She started at USC in 2008 as a biochemistry major but quickly switched to neuroscience, a branch of science that deals with the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology of nerves and nervous tissue and especially their relation to behavior and learning.

“When I took some neuroscience classes the second semester of my freshman year, I was sold,” she said. “I loved the classes and I did well in them because I was super-interested and I never wavered off that major from that point forward.”

While at USC, she signed up for the school’s Joint Education Project through which she taught supplementary science classes to underprivileged fifth graders at the Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School in Los Angeles. There she prepared students for standardized state tests and worked to get them up to a level where they would succeed in science through high school.

During her college summers she taught science classes in topics such as forensics, oceanography, LEGO Robotics and web design to K-8 children at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

“That was particularly fun because I ran into little girls who were like me when I was younger,” she said. “I was able to make sure they had the kind of camp experience that would keep them interested in science.”

Since graduating from USC in 2012, Brown has been preparing for her next step, applying to medical school. Meanwhile, she’s been working in a neuroscience lab at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland and taking genetics, physics and molecular biology classes at Portland State University. In December, she accepted an offer to be a volunteer in OHSU’s trauma ICU in the Trauma Research Associates Program.

Reflecting on what brought her to this point, Brown gives a lot of the credit to getting to know women who talked about their lives as engineers and getting involved in science-related programs, such as the Girl Scout camps and LEGO Robotics.

Women science teachers also played a role.

“Women science teachers need to see themselves as role models and use their platform to encourage girls to pursue science,” Brown said. “Women science teachers need to be women science teachers.”

Teachers also need to point out the role of women in great scientific discoveries, Brown added.

“For example,” she said. “Teachers often portray the discovery of DNA as being done by men, but there was one woman involved (Rosalind Franklin), and she’s never mentioned or she’s a blurb this big,” she says, squeezing her thumb and index finger together.

“It takes a lot of kinds of experiences to see that science is something you could actually do,” Brown said. “And it takes a lot more convincing for girls to see themselves in the sciences.”

Brown also sees a need for STEM fields to adapt to women’s needs if they want more women to succeed.

“I don’t think the STEM fields have adjusted to the increase of women, so they haven’t made it easy or even possible for women to stay in those fields,” she said. “For example, if a woman has a child or needs to take time off to care for elderly parents she might need to take a break from work, but there is little allowance in scientific research for a long absence. There is, instead, an expectation that researchers will be constantly publishing.”

The men-to-women ratio of new students at medical schools is about 50 percent, she said, but only about three-fifths of the women end up practicing medicine.

“We might think we’re doing better because more women are studying in those fields, but we aren’t seeing all those women practicing. Too many drop out because the system hasn’t adjusted for women in intense professional programs who have other important roles, too.”

Guest columnist William MacKenzie, of Lake Oswego, is the former communications manager for Intel in Oregon. MacKenzie writes a monthly business column for the Review’s sister newspaper, the Hillsboro Tribune, and he is affiliated with the AM:PM PR public relations firm in Portland. MacKenzie also is an Encore Fellow with Social Venture Partners Portland.