Wellesley Collaboration Creates a Path into Sciences for High Schoolers
When Ally Kim ’21 began tutoring students in neuroscience, she focused her ambitions on what was possible, planning lectures and structuring independent research projects for five teenagers from her former high school in California every summer.
“The way we frame science is very inaccessible,” she says. “It requires that you’re able-bodied, well-off, from a family that knows what academia is like.” Kim wanted to open the field to students who didn’t have those advantages. “I thought, ‘I know some neuroscience, I can teach kids who want to learn.’ So that’s how it started.”
The summer after her sophomore year, Kim asked students from the Wellesley neuroscience department if they wanted to help her mentor high schoolers. “We got to teach 10 students, 12 students, and then I thought: We’re doing so much, and we’re doing it so much better than some of these institutions that have traditionally done it. … It’s free and anyone can learn from us. How about we just make this into an organization?”
With the help of Daniela Limbania ’21, her co-director, and Hee So Kim ’23, Ally set about reading legal documents and learning HTML to build an institution—and a website—from scratch.
Now a 501(c)(3) organization incorporated in the state of California, the Science Mentorship Institute has 300 students enrolled in a five-week online neuroscience program. Ally and her colleagues recruited them by reaching out to schools and advertising on student learning platforms.
“If you’re underrepresented in science...and you’re already prone to leave science because science has not traditionally been made for you—we’re going to give you this really good experience where there are mentors who are supporting you.”Ally Kim ’21
The course will approximate a first-year college neuroscience class, including a journal club, in which students will learn how to read studies and write up their own research. An admissions committee, led by Daniela, worked to identify 60 students who would most benefit from one-on-one mentoring; these students and their mentors will participate in synchronous lectures together. Over and above studying the biology of the brain, students will learn basic coding and data analysis, which Ally describes as “essential in almost any aspect of neuroscience research.” The main goal for the program, Hee So says, is for the students to pursue an independent research project. This could take the form of original data analysis or a review-style paper, summarizing findings in prior research on a topic and indicating a potential path forward.
The greater goal, Ally says, is to give students from groups underrepresented in the sciences the background and support structures they need to study science at a higher level: “the cognitive-behavioral, the computational, and the biological—the molecular neuroscience—we give them a little bit of everything.”
“If you’re underrepresented in science, which is the target population that we’re working with, and you’re already prone to leave science because science has not traditionally been made for you—we’re going to give you this really good experience where there are mentors who are supporting you,” she says. “They’re guiding you through these questions: How do you think about science? How do you overcome challenges? And even: How do you write emails to your supervisors? That’s what our mentors are there for.”
The Science Mentorship Institute is also trying to obtain stipends for its students, in part through a GoFundMe page and employer-matched donations. “We are respectful of any flexibility they need,” says Ally. “If students have to work, helping their parents or anything else, I don’t want to say no to them trying to learn science. As long as they’re willing, we’re trying our best to make this as inclusive as possible. That means that any donations we get go right back into the community.”
For now, Ally, Daniela, and Hee So are at the helm of the neuroscience program. The two recent graduates are preparing to pursue M.D./Ph.D.s; Ally is a computational biologist at the Broad Institute and Daniela studies the neural circuits controlling the vision of fruit flies in the Frye lab at UCLA. Hee So, a neuroscience major and computer science minor, is interested in pursuing an advanced degree in cognitive neuroscience after she graduates.
The Science Mentorship Institute has plans to teach biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science in the years ahead. “We have dreams to expand to all these other programs spanning science, and it’s still going to be free. It’s our hope,” Ally says. “I think that the courage, the sheer courage to say: ‘I’m going to do this’—I don’t think this would have been possible without a Wellesley education.”