Show me the money: How a Ph.D. chemist is helping corporate America team up with K-12 STEM education programs

We hope this blog is making it abundantly clear that a chemistry degree qualifies you for a lot more than you might think. I mean, who knew a chemist could land a job at a Disney theme park where he could use his chemical knowledge to help make, for example, a more corrosion-resistant artificial skin? It seems, therefore, that a reasonable approach to discovering your chemistry dream job is this: Figure out what you’re passionate about and what gets you out of bed in the morning. Then find a job that lets you do that. (Word of caution: Not every job you can dream up will be able to pay the rent, so that’s something important to keep in mind).

Zakiah Pierre, Ph.D. chemist, is a research associate for "Change the Equation", an organization whose goal is to improve the state of K-12 STEM teaching in the U.S. Courtesy photo.

This seems to be the approach Zakiah Pierre is taking in pursuing her career. Although she started grad school thinking she’d go into forensic science, along the way she discovered she was really passionate about “mentoring and paving the way for our future engineers and scientists.” The more she got more involved in mentoring students, the more she became convinced that a science career that allowed her to have an immediate impact on students was the right path for her. That line of thinking has led her to where she is today with Change the Equation, an organization focused on improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for every child, with a particular focus on girls and students of color. One of the ways CTEq strives to accomplish its goals is by identifying innovative programs to advance STEM literary in the United States, measuring the success of these programs through research and analysis and replicating them in communities that need them most. This is where Zakiah comes in. As a research associate, she gathers data regarding the condition of STEM learning state-by-state and nationwide and assesses the impact of STEM learning programs that receive corporate support. By evaluating the success of various programs, she helps CTEq make a solid case for why companies should continue funding them—and expanding them to new, underserved sites. She also writes reports that let their partners know about the needs in STEM learning, with the hope that changes in policy will be made to address those needs. In addition to research and writing reports, Zakiah also blogs about science education news and programs and occasionally represents the organization at meetings around D.C. on a variety of STEM education topics. In the future, Zakiah hopes to expand her role to writing short briefs for peer-reviewed journals on current issues in K-12 STEM learning. It may be apparent by now that Zakiah has had to expand her knowledge base and skill set. The beauty of it all is that the diverse skill set she acquired through grad school provides her with a good foundation for taking on this job. So while a Ph.D. is not necessarily required for the job she has now, Zakiah said there are so many skills that one acquires in the process that are transferrable to other jobs. “You also learn how to network, learn all those ways of communication, time management, things to learn that you wouldn’t get working somewhere,” Zakiah said. Ahh, the beauty of transferable skills… A little more about CTEq, in case you’re interested: The 110 companies that are part of CTEq have pledged “to connect and align their work to transform STEM learning in the United States by shining a light on progress and problems; advocating and influencing; leading by example; and acting as catalysts for change.” It was founded in September 2010 in response to President Obama’s Educate to Innovate Campaign to move the U.S. to the top of the pack in science and math education. “Companies have already been giving over a half billion dollars a year to K-12 STEM education,” Zakiah said. “Yet our country continues to fall behind in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Money can't buy happiness, but it can provide the means to get K-12 STEM education programs off the ground. Photo credit: flickr user AMagill

Considering that STEM fields have such a broad impact on our day-to-day lives, we must seize the opportunity to improve STEM literacy, she added. So, how exactly do you go from getting a Ph.D. in chemistry to joining forces with an organization like CTEq? In her last year of grad school, Zakiah applied for an internship with Education Pioneers, which is like a “Teach for America for grad students looking for leadership roles in education.” She worked with a Charter school “to help them with analyzing their student and teacher assessment data to aid in strategic planning for the upcoming school year.” This experience was valuable for getting her foot in the door with K-12 STEM education, and it gave her skills and connections that have paid off, including with the landing of her current job. Zakiah said that her Ph.D. adviser and her husband have been the biggest academic influences on her life. “[They] tie for really inspiring me to go for gold, reach for the stars, be me,” she said. “They really encouraged my exploration and supported me in my decisions. They really gave me the courage to step out of the box.” Zakiah’s long-term goal is to start a math and science middle school “to encourage students at a young age to appreciate all of the science around them and potentially consider STEM careers in their future.” Her vision for the school is for it to have curriculum that is extremely hands on and innovative. “It will be unlike anything students have ever experienced on that level,” Zakiah said. “Stay tuned.”

Author: Christine Herman

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  1. This is really a fantastic profile, Christine!! And a truly fantastic cause. Zakiah, if you’re reading this I’m in DC at AmericanU and am juuuust about ready to start volunteering/doing STEM outreach. Would love to hear more about what you guys are doing. Please email me if you get the chance.

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    • @Hyacinth: Thanks! The amount of discussion we get going in the comments depends on the topic of the post, and it’s hard to predict which posts will generate the most discussion. I’m glad you’re enjoying reading this blog 🙂