Lab Girls lays the groundwork for female scientists

  • Lab Girls held its first virtual meeting last Thursday with presenter Mirka Zapletal, director of education at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord. Traditionally held once a week over the course of six weeks in local middle schools, the virtual Lab Girls format is held once a month through June and is open to students in grades 5 through 12. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Lab Girls held its first virtual meeting last Thursday with presenter Mirka Zapletal, director of education at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord. Traditionally held once a week over the course of six weeks in local middle schools, the virtual Lab Girls format is held once a month through June and is open to students in grades 5 through 12. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin

  • Lab Girls held its first virtual meeting last Thursday with presenter Mirka Zapletal, director of education at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord. Traditionally held once a week over the course of six weeks in local middle schools, the virtual Lab Girls format is held once a month through June and is open to students in grades 5 through 12. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Students take part on a hands-on activity as part of UNH forester Karen Bennett’s LAB GIRLS presentation in April 2019. Ben Conant / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/12/2021 6:55:45 PM

When Mirka Zapletal was growing up, she knew of a few female scientists – Marie Curie and Jane Goodall to be exact. All the rest, she thought, were men.

“I just thought scientists were other people than me,” Zapletal, director of education at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, told the latest batch of Lab Girls participants Thursday night over the first-ever Zoom meeting of the program.

But then after embarking on her career as an educator, she realized she could be.

“I wasn’t a scientist until someone gave me the chance to realize I was,” Zapletal said.

And for those young ladies who have an interest in STEM, Lab Girls has spent the last four years trying to instill that love of all things science, technology, engineering and math, hosting guest speakers like Zapletal to show there is a way for women to pursue a life in the sciences. Those like Zapletal are there to share their stories – like her work researching carnivores on an island off Louisiana, sifting through scat to see what she could learn and working in wildlife rehabilitation – all while creating excitement and interest.

“Some of my research was great, some of it made no sense at all,” Zapletal said. “And my favorite part is the field work, going out to see the animals and what they’re doing.”

Susie Spikol, Community Programs Director and Naturalist at the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock, started the program in the spring of 2017 to create that excitement. She read “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren and it got the wheels turning.

“It made me really think about how girls become scientists,” Spikol said. And Spikol came to the conclusion that it starts with good role models, allowing her to reflect on her own experiences growing up in Brooklyn with aspirations to become a wildlife biologist. She continued to do research and just couldn’t get the idea out of her head.

“Girls need to have a vision to do jobs that are traditionally in a man’s world,” she said.

Thanks to an almost $11,000 grant from 100+ Women Who Care Monadnock in January of 2017, she had the seed money to get it started.

“I felt like I had won the Megabucks,” Spikol said.

The program started out with holding two, six-week sessions, one at Great Brook School and the other at South Meadow School in the ConVal School Districts at different points during the school year for girls in grades 5 through 8. It’s an influential time to keep girls interested in the sciences, Spikol said, as scientific research showed that female students began to lose interest as they got into high school.

The program met once a week, with a different guest speaker and hand on activity that gave a broad look at a variety of career opportunities to pursue.

For this school year, Spikol had secured a grant from the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation to expand the program to Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and Keene Middle School. But the continued restrictions put forth by the coronavirus pandemic and most schools doing some sort of remote learning proved that it would be impossible to hold any in-person program.

“Because of the pandemic we had to switch it up,” Spikol said.

So Spikol decided to adapt like many other organizations have and moved Lab Girls to a virtual platform and although Thursday’s meeting was the first of its kind, Spikol already sees the advantages to it.

The program would typically cap at about 20 students per session and be limited to just those in one school, but she was able to open it up to girls from all over, including places like Virginia, Texas, Oregon and Maine, as well as those from the local schools. It was also expanded to students in grades 5 through 12, and even though the first of six monthly Zoom get togethers already happened, Spikol said signups are open through the end of January. So far there are more than 60 girls signed up.

“There’s a hunger and an interest in this,” Spikol said.

Lab Girls will be held the first Thursday of the month through June and the lineup of speakers includes Dr. Adrienne Kovach’s focus on the New England Cottontail Rabbits in February, followed by Allison Keating from the NH Fish and Game’s Wild Turkey Program. April’s meeting will feature Karen Noyce, a bear researcher from Minnesota. There’s also a program on spiders in May, which got a lot of comments in the chat of Thursday’s Zoom, and the final group meeting will host Haley Andreozzi and Malin Clyde, the UNH Cooperative Extension’s Bio-Blitz coordinators.

Having the program online has not only opened it up to young girls across the state and country, but also to connect with professionals who wouldn’t be able to make the trip to one of the school locations.

“To have them drive down to Antrim for an hour talk, that would never happen,” Spikol said

While each session of Lab Girls includes a hands on activity, that is not really an option when it’s held virtually. So the format for the monthly meeting is that the speaker gets an opportunity to share their research and work, as well as what got them into their fields. The students get to ask questions and then through the use of online programs like Seesaw, iNaturalist and Project Squirrel, the students are tasked with going out into their own backyards and beyond to conduct their own research.

“This is a great way for you to become a citizen scientist,” Spikol told the group.

Spikol said the hope is to return to the in-person format next year, but also wants to keep the virtual component as an option.

“It opens the door up and takes the walls down for access,” she said.

For more information and to register, email Spikol at spikol@harriscenter.org.




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