So you want to be a virologist?

“Viruses to me are extremely smart, and almost poetic to me.” Quite an introduction to the subject of virology! Dr. Connie Chow talks of her love for virology, her interests in transforming STEM learning through initiatives like The Exploratory in Ghana and The letter to my young self initiative. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

How did you get to study virology? I have always been interested in Biology.  When I went to University, I was not sure which area to choose. I did pick botany because I thought that I had to memorize things about plants! So I looked at the animal side of biology. I did not like blood, so I deflected from that. Microbiology was a very new field for me because I had not studied that in high school. And so I focused on that. When I was in my 3rd year, I really fell in love. Viruses to me were extremely smart, and almost poetic to me. For example, a genome is like writing a book that can be read either backwards or forward! That is the way genetic coding works. Viruses capturing and invading cellular functions seemed like something from an epic novel. All that was very intriguing to me. I finished my undergraduate degree and the AIDS epidemic was just coming into play. I was interested in finding a cure and understanding diseases that affect a large part of the global population. The idea of having made different disciplines that interact together and benefit from that intellectual, encouraged me to go to graduate school.

What aspects of virology are particularly interesting for you? Virology is a really broad field. My field of study is known as  molecular virology, which can illuminate our own cellular functions and has applications in disease research because of the intersection between the host and the viruses. The other really interesting areas in virology are epidemiology and especially emerging viruses which can tell us where the next opportunistic disease outbreak may occur. This can may be due to breaches of habitats formerly not occupied by humans, small changes in the environment, or composition of the viruses such as with the recent Zika virus outbreak.

What are you working on right now? For about 10 years, I have been working on increasing the number of women and girls, and especially those from traditionally under-represented groups, to get them excited about science, engineering and technology. Before I left academia, I was already working with teachers in the public schools, to get junior high school students to think about science differently. When they came for summer camps, we were already teaching them college level work. What amazed me was the capacity of young people to think through complex ideas when the topics were sufficiently interesting. At times, I think we don’t give them hard enough problems to solve when they are younger. This encouraged me to work with kids from very diverse groups and communities, but mostly from under-resourced areas. For the last few years, I have focused my work on Ghana and my organization is called The Exploratory.

What does The Exploratory project involve? We work with children between 4th grade and junior high school. We are trying to make science relevant, joyful, collaborative and equitable. We also want teachers to experience the same joyfulness about science. The teachers practice hands-on science first so that they feel comfortable and we provide materials so that they can also engage their students in hands-on science. When I first started the project, we were originally working in one primary school with about 20 teachers and 120 kids. We are, currently, working with 17 schools and almost 700 children with 68 teachers. The rate of growth is a little crazy but very exciting. And much needed.

I hope this can be replicated to other countries in Africa? Sure. One of the ideas that we have is to codify some of the principles and practices around the project so that other groups can take it on. We would like to share our model, so that people can adapt it to their countries and communities as they understand their own context much better. This way each can contribute their own innovations as their clubs develop, and ideally we can come together and learn from each other. We are happy to partner.

What two things have you have learnt from working with the teachers in Ghana? Contrary to some misconceptions about teachers’ dedication, I have been very lucky to work with a group of teachers who are really want their children to succeed and are really interested in improving their chance. They take advantage of the training to improve themselves and are excited about the opportunity. They are very willing to give time to work with the kids. The second thing is that the teachers are bound by the curriculum that the students are subjected to. So while, on the one hand, they are very excited about letting kids learn through exploration and play, they are also bound to teach the curriculum. It is difficult to juggle.

How are you working around the rigid curriculum? We have been adapting so that the teachers are able to teach more of the topics that is in the curriculum in our clubs but within a learning environment where students are doing hands-on, practical experiments in small groups, developing confidence in their observations, collecting and analyzing data and asking questions. We have also created a design challenge so that they get a chance to create something that solves a problem.  For example, for the problem of power outages, we worked with electronics specialists to create the challenge. That way, both the teachers and the students get to think about the application of these concepts instead of just memorizing a circuit diagram et cetera.

In addition to The Exploratory, you are also an associate lecturer at a public university in the US. what is next for you? In the next few years, I will continue working on projects within the university level to retain first generation college students in science. I am creating communities of students who are interested in studying science beyond university. I am creating a Course Based Research Experience (CURE) course where STEM majors will conduct research in a particular area. Wrapped around this is developing a deeper level of learning to read and write about science, have critical discussions around papers, and both formal communication, as well as writing for the public. Since very few students understand what research involves, I will involve researchers both within the university and outside to expose them to current research going on in different fields, what it takes and the attributes suited to those particular fields. Groups will be attached to mentors to help them read research papers and understand a concept well enough to present those ideas.

Letter to my young self, how did that start? I was running an organization in the US called Science Club for Girls where women in STEM would conduct hands-on STEM clubs with girls. One time, I asked one of our alumni of the program what they remembered from those visits. They said ‘Sometimes I may not remember what the person was working on but the most memorable thing is when a person spoke about a challenge that they had and how they overcame those challenges”. And that prompted me to think about this idea ‘letter to my young self’, so that people can share their journey. It is not a new concept, other people have done it as well, but we are focusing it on women with STEM careers, and we hope that people can find something unique that fits in with what inspiration they need because of the variety of these experiences. Interestingly, once we started on those letters, we also got responses from women who are further along in their careers who were also encouraged by the letters.

What is your favorite quote? The most notable fact our culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits. The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities. Adrienne Rich

What do you do to relax? I play in a multigenerational pan-Asian women’s taiko (Japanese drumming) group. I am still learning and can say I am reasonably better at it. And I enjoy cooking and trying new recipes.

Dr. Connie Chow wears several hats as an educator, social entrepreneur, advocate and consultant for equity in STEM. Apart from her research experience in virology, she is also an associate lecturer as well as the founder of The Exploratory in Ghana. She has a broad vision, which is to transform both teaching and learning in STEM.

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