environmental justice

LISTEN: Unconventional pathways to science, part 1 with Dr. Johanna vanderSpek

Former Agents of Change fellow speaks with her mentor about her long career advocating for diversity in science.

Former Agents of Change fellow Cielo Sharkus speaks with her mentor Dr. Johanna vanderSpek about her career and the role she's played in helping women of color pursue science.


VanderSpek, a retired professor of BU medical school, and department head of the Worcester public school's biotechnology program, has worked both in public and private education focusing on mitigating social injustice for historically underrepresented groups. She is an integral part of the Worcester and Boston community, helping many girls go to college and graduate school, including Sharkus.

In part 2 next week, Sharkus and another former Agents of Change fellow, Azmal Hossan, speak with Hossan's mentor, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with vanderSpek, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript 

Brian Bienkowski

Today we are once again turning things over to our fellows. This is part one of “Unconventional Pathways to Science,” a two-part conversation by fellows Azmal Hossan and Cielo Sharkus, where they talk to their mentors. In this episode, Cielo Sharkus, an Agents of Change fellow and a PhD candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talked to her mentor Dr. Jo vanderSpek, a retired professor of BU Medical School and department head of the Worcester Public Schools’ biotechnology program. vanderSpek has worked both in public and private education focusing her efforts on mitigating social injustice for historically underrepresented groups. She's created educational interventions for hundreds of women of color, and helped to integrate diversity and inclusion principles into public secondary education. She is an integral part of the Worcester and Boston communities helping many girls go to college and graduate school including Cielo herself. Now vanderSpek serves as the assistant director to HOPE: Humans for the Opposition of Pollution and Emissions, a nonprofit founded by both vanderSpek and Sharkus. It is so cool to hear about Cielo and Jo’s friendship and connection. Now I'm going to turn things over to Cielo. Enjoy the conversation.

Cielo Sharkus

Jo vanderSpek has been my mentor for, I want to say, about 10 years, when I first started as a high school student in Worcester public schools. So Jo was a very important figure in my life, she was actually the first person I'd ever met with a PhD. And she was one of the only women who I've ever met also with a PhD at that time. And so Jo was really important to me, because when I started, I really wanted to be a scientist. And I didn't know what that meant, because my parents didn't graduate high school, nor did they graduate college or get advanced degrees. And so for me, Jo was like a beacon of hope, someone who could mentor me and teach me all the tips and tricks to succeeding. And when we started at our biotechnology program, what I remember the most was Jo gave me this lab coat that said Dr. Sharkus on it. And I was so excited, because that could be me in like 12 years. And so, Jo, why you describe who you are.

Johanna vanderSpek

Well, thank you very much, Cielo, and I am someone who's always been interested in science. Just always enjoyed it. And I am someone who fortunately, both my parents raised me to accept everybody. They were in World War II in Holland, they went through a lot. They, we, they immigrated to Canada, and where they met, got married, and then they came to the United States. I was born in Canada. And I was lucky to have parents who are not prejudiced, or you know, had all these conceptions about people. So that's me, and I was Little Miss science nerd. That’s about it.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, absolutely. That was, that was just like me when I was a kid. But one aspect I really wanted to focus on for our mentor discussion was understanding the impact that early career professionals have on women of color from low-income areas. And so I really like to use this quote from Mary Alfred in 2018. She described that advancing women of color and STEM is an imperative for US global competitiveness. And so for me, to address the absence of woman of color and STEM, it's really important to understand how critical women like Jo are for career development, beginning with early childhood experience throughout education and different work environments. And so Jo has worked over the past decade in Worcester public schools to create educational intervention programs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. She's been a great advocate for starting early in elementary and secondary education. She's helped women learn how to code, reach research opportunities, and most importantly, support young woman into achieving PhDs. Most of Jo's women alumni have actually entered graduate programs. And for me, she's been a really incredible force in the Worcester community, and an inspiration to understanding how women of color can enter STEM in unconventional ways. She's actually the reason I've continued in this field, and her wisdom really guides me and helps me feel both supported and comforted and validated in all of the experiences that I've had. And so I guess that brings us to our first question, Jo, can you describe some of your early experiences when you were a grad student or an early career scientist, starting out in the field?

Johanna vanderSpek

All right, well, first off, I want to say I went to UMass Amherst for college. And I majored in zoology, which was a big mistake. It's a huge, huge program, or it was then when I was there, and you didn't really get an advisor, I mean, you had someone you didn't know. And you had to take seven semesters of chemistry. And the first thing that happened was they didn't put it on my schedule. So, and I was just totally lost in sauce, took care of that, the chemistry issue, but then failed calculus. And I was doing poorly, I did poorly in organic chemistry. During that year, my father died. And I switched my major to microbiology. Much, much better major, fewer people in it, and I had a place to go to, to work, you, I could speak with the head of that department. His name was Stanley Holt. I could go and talk to him and get advice from him. And they had a room there that had coffee, a coffee machine and a big desk, and the students could go and sit in there. So I found my niche. And it was easier to make friends in that program. So, make sure you're in the right major. Alright, and it's okay to change while you're in college. And one of the things I always told my students, and I'm sure Cielo will remember this, when I was, when I graduated from UMass, I had a 2.9 GPA. Okay, so that's not a very high GPA. And you know what, I always told my high school students about it, because I needed them to know that there was life after getting some bad grades. And, you know, you could still go to grad school, and you can still meet your goals if you wanted to. And one of the things I did when I was working at one of my jobs through, at Harvard, I took organic chemistry again, and you know, I got a better grade. And then when I applied to grad school, I had that going for me. Right. I also worked in four different jobs before going back to school. So five years for different jobs. And then I went into grad school. And I went to Boston University School of Medicine for grad school. And it that was fine. It was, I worked for a guy who was great. But unfortunately, the postdoc there was somebody who would stop a piece of equipment and take my experiment out of it, because he wanted to use it. So I'd go, you know, I'd have samples in a centrifuge, she would turn it off. So he, I’d be using a water bath, and he would just take my stuff out and put his in. So I had to change labs while I was in graduate school as well. So graduate school, graduate school, when I started the biotechnology program, well, it was a biochemistry program at graduate school. A lot of the students didn't accept me at first, because I was older than they were, you know, I was five years older than they were. So it took them a while to get used to me, I wasn't invited to parties, they wouldn't talk to me at first. But as they got to know me, they realized, okay, and then, you know, it took them a little while to get used to me. But grad school was fine. I mean, when I went to grad school, we got paid to go. So I got, you know, money for doing research in a lab. And I also made some friends there. So that was good. And I treated it like a job. That's one thing about having worked for five years, it was my job to go in every day, and work all day and sometimes on weekends to get my work done. So that was it and really enjoyed biochemistry.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah. I love how you discussed that you had a 2.5 GPA UMass because

Johanna vanderSpek

2.9

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, 2.9. I like that you had a 2.9 at UMAss, because when I first started my undergraduate career, and I started getting a low GPA, mine was actually 2.5. So when I started getting this low GPA, my parents actually asked Jo, they were like, “Why is this happening to Cielo, is this common, is there something wrong with her?” And what I loved about Jo was she was able to explain even to like my parents and other people's parents that it was just completely normal. And this also helped comfort me, because personally, when you start in undergrad or even in grad school, and you just immediately start floundering or not doing well, it was, it was nice knowing that, you know, I came from a lineage of people who struggled and also succeeded. So that's one of the really big things I really wanted to hit on in this podcast I wanted to talk about unconventional ways to stay in STEM and thrive in STEM. So I know all about your undergraduate and graduate experiences. Is there anything else that really stands out? What are some things that people have said to you that really are memorable?

Johanna vanderSpek

Well, yeah, that would have been more about the five years that I worked at four different jobs before going back to school. I ran into racism and sexism that my jobs. So when I first got out of college, I worked in the lab. So, people even hired me with a 2.9 GPA. But I went and I worked in a lab, where the lab manager, the head of the lab was okay, the lab manager was quite a jerk. And I was, I was running clinical samples for cholesterol and triglycerides. And they used to have a guy who would deliver the samples to me, so that, you know, they'd be different people each time. But one, one guy in particular, he was a young, African American man, and he came in and it was the last, his last delivery of the day. And he was talking to me about he was interested in going to college, and how should he go about doing that? Did I have any advice for him. And while he was in there with me, the lab manager came in, told him to get out and told me that he hoped that I hadn't told the young man where I lived, because he might follow me home and rape me, and that he was going to have him fired. So I'm sorry, I get a little upset when I tell that story. And I had to go to the head of the lab and talk to him. And he told me not to worry that he would contact the personnel department and let them know not to do anything to the young man. And I also contacted. Oh, I couldn't believe it. Oh, that guy was so bad. That lab manager, I mean, he was sexist and racist. And

Cielo Sharkus

How long was he there?

Johanna vanderSpek

He was there for, I lasted at that job for a year, only because the head of the lab begged me to stay. I mean, I wanted to leave after six months. But uh, he told me I'd, you know, it’d be tough for me to get another job if I left. Which, you know, I wish now, I had.

Cielo Sharkus

But that's the general fear for women. Even in grad school, you know, you're scared of switching PIs. Because you don't want a reputation for being problematic. Or you're afraid to leave your job. You don't want to burn bridges.

Johanna vanderSpek

You know, I did that too. And if you got to do it, you gotta do it, you've got to get your work done. Yeah. That's the number one issue.

Cielo Sharkus

It's so hard to get your work done when you see these injustices, or injustice is happening around you. So how, how have you had hope throughout all of those challenging times? How have you been so forward focused? And how has that helped you to succeed? I know everything you've been through, and all the things you've seen, how are you able to make it out and create something so positive from those challenging experiences?

Johanna vanderSpek

Well, I mean, you know, we've talked about this before, when that happened to me, so I left there. And again, I spoke with the personnel department, and they told me they knew what an A-hole he was. And not to worry about it. But this was way back in like 1979. That's how old I am. And then, you know, I just, that wasn't the first time I ran into sexism. I mean, I worked at four different jobs. The last job I worked for a woman. So I wouldn't have the issue. I thought, you know, I'm only gonna work for a woman. But you just have to keep on going. I mean, I have to say, once I got to graduate school, it, that was much better. I didn't encounter all the sexism and I don't—thinking back to grad school, at BU medical school, BU School of Medicine, I don't remember much racism. But Boston was pretty integrated, especially since BU School of Medicine is in the Roxbury area and near City Hospital. So it was a very diverse population of people. So that helped. But how do you go on? I was a science nerd. I loved science.

Cielo Sharkus

But you also had a really great mentor as well, who helped motivate you.

Johanna vanderSpek

So that? That was when that was when I was working. Alright, so I had graduated from, I graduated from graduate school. And then I got my first job and from my first job, I did work at BU School of Medicine, which you're not really supposed to stay and do your postdoc at the same place that you went to grad school, but I didn't have any money. My father had died, a lot of the other grad students were going to other countries and states. And I was like, I don't have the money to move. So I'm going to stay here and work. And so that was in the Department of Medicine section of Molecular Genetics. And I worked for a guy, Jack Murphy. And he was great. And then I got, that's where I met Dr. Harold Amos. So I was actually at that job for about 10 years. And when I left it, it I mean, I was faculty there for quite a while I left at the level of Associate Professor. But during that time, I met Dr. Harold Amos. And Harold was from New Jersey. He was African American. He actually attended a segregated school for you know, when he was in grade school, then he went to high school there, he graduated first in his class. He went to Springfield College on a full academic scholarship. He got his bachelor's, but he, in biology, he graduated summa cum laude, and then he went and fought in World War II. Alright, so he was, he was so nice. He was the nicest man I've ever met. And he was a mentor to a lot of people. He, he's helped a lot of people. He went to Harvard Medical School. And he got his PhD in 1952. That was so long ago. And he was the first African American to get his PhD. It was in the Division of Medical Sciences. He was also the first Afro-American to be a department chair. So it was, he was chair of the microbiology department and the molecular genetics department. And if any of you ever want to know about him, just I mean, look them up online. Harold Amos, Harvard. Yeah, you'll find out so much about him.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, I mean, they say we always stand on the shoulders of giants. So it's amazing that you had someone like that for you.

Johanna vanderSpek

Oh, I, I used to make coffee for him every morning. And he would, he would come in every morning, tell me something smelled good. And he would take his first sip. And he would always, always thank me, he was such a gentleman. He, honestly, so important to so many people at Harvard. I mean, you should, you should look him up. Anyway, he always told me I should be a teacher. Because of course, I was teaching, you know, I was teaching PhD and MD students. In, during summer programs, I was taking in college students and working with them. I was teaching people who came from other labs to learn how to do stuff. And he used to tell me, you know, that, that I just should be a teacher because I explained things so clearly. And that I would really be great at it. And that I could really make a lot of difference, for a lot of people.

Cielo Sharkus

And that's true, you have made a big difference for so many people. But when you first began your career as a high school teacher, I, I'm sure it must have been interesting, starting with a PhD since most, most other high school teachers only have master's degrees. But what were some obstacles and challenges you faced when you first started the program, like including the funding, how did you overcome that?

Johanna vanderSpek

Okay, so to start with, I didn't, I didn't really have any obstacles when I started. The, when I went in for the interview, and you're right, I. The thing is, after I left BU I also worked in a few small industries, alright, small startup industries. And the program was advertising for, the school program was advertising for someone who had worked in industry the past few years, and I came in with a PhD as well. And, you know, not to brag, but I pretty much blew them away. I mean, I had all the requirements they needed. I mean, I walked into that interview, and I said, you know, you don't want someone who's only worked in industry for a couple of years. You want someone who's been at a lot of different jobs and done a lot of different types of techniques. And we had a great principal at the school, a female principal, and the vocational director was a great guy. So, and they had already obtained a grant for $100,000 for me to start the program. So I really, my, I, really not that many obstacles starting it. The students who came into the classroom, I didn't have a lot of problems with them. But one of the things I did do, and this is kind of important, because you and I have talked about this before. We had that explore program where people would come in, and they would find out about the program and they would stay there for a week. And I used to tell them at the beginning, that if you're going to come into this program, you're going to work very, very hard. You know, we're one of the most difficult programs in the school. I, and I think you remember me telling you guys, I was for real. I knew about science, I expected a lot. You know, I expected you to work hard. And I also said that if I heard about any bullying or racism, racist remarks, that was it, you were done, you weren't getting into the program. I wasn't interested in having anybody in the program who would do that. And I learned that because of the first few explores that I did when I started, I'd have students come in and talk about fights they had at their other schools. And I remember one girl in particular, saying how she smashed someone's head into a sink. It just was like, What? No. I don’t want anybody like that.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, it was really incredible the way that you were able to create both like a safe space for us to be vulnerable. But ways that students who had challenging backgrounds were able to, you know, utilize their own personality, and adapt to the new changing ecosystem. So in our lab, we had a lot of students who are disabled, different cultures, Jo was able to create spaces for them to pray in, spaces where students could eat at any time, depending on like Ramadan, fasting, it was really incredible all the lengths that Jo went to, to make sure everyone was comfortable. And that everyone that entered the space was respectful of other people as well.

Johanna vanderSpek

Yeah, you had to feel safe. And you mentioned, you know, well, you mentioned Ramadan, and people eating food and stuff. That was a huge, great thing about having the different cultures there. Remember how we could invite everybody to bring something to eat from their culture? I used to love that.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, I remember that, too. That was my favorite. It's so interesting, the way how something so simple can make you feel welcome. I leave to love bringing in different snacks from my culture, sharing, like samosas from other people. is so cool. Yeah, even like vegans and vegetarians, all of us just able to, you know, coalesce in this space together. And then it's even those like little things as well like food insecurity in Worcester, Massachusetts is really, really big. So giving students the opportunity to eat at the beginning of the day and be flexible with how long they needed for lunchtimes was really important, too.

Johanna vanderSpek

Yeah. Oh, and we should point out that most of the students who were in biotechnology were female.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, absolutely.

Johanna vanderSpek

And the, the, the girls, women, you know, who did come in. They, they were doing it because they were interested in the life sciences, they wanted to help people. And I'm not putting down the guys who came in, we had some very great guys come in, very diverse population of guys, too. But usually, the class makeup was 80% women, at least. I mean, the last class was, I think it was 22. And there was one guy in it. But most of the, most of the people who came into biotechnology were women.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah. And it's amazing the impact that you can have on all these high school girls. So how has that changed your perspective about STEM and STEAM and women in engineering? How have they positively changed, like, the culture of science at Worcester tech and the greater Massachusetts community?

Johanna vanderSpek

I have to say it works. Alright, STEM, STEAM. I mean, I went to a STEM at WPI. And then they had these different programs. And I mean, I'm saying WPI, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, because it's near our school. Also, we got a lot of help from UMass Medical School, which our school is also located near. A lot of women in medical school, and they would come in and talk to the students one on one. And you know, Cielo, I mean, your, your mentor from UMass med was a guy. But they would come in, and they would talk and tell you about their experiences and what, you know, and you could talk to them, they helped with the college application process. We're also near a Holy Cross. There's a program there that that takes, you know, the students go after school, and they'll help them with their work, and they'll do some tutoring. But all of those programs, and that's called X Chrome, by the way, because that's only for women. And those kinds of programs really do make a huge difference. I mean, a lot of the students who've gone to summer programs at WPI, oh, of course the internships were at UMass Medical School as the students would go and do internships there. Unfortunately, that ended. They couldn't do it during COVID. But they would work in labs. And they would find out what it was like to work in a lab, same WPI was taking them as well, you, I think you were one of the first students to do an internship.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, I remember that. Yeah.

Johanna vanderSpek

It was before the program actually started. You were working in a doctor's office, right?

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, I loved having that opportunity. So, Jo worked really, really hard to match us based off our interests. And I think I told Jo in passing, that I really, really wanted to be in the medical field. So I was going to go to grad school, you know, go all through my undergrad being a pre-med major. And so I started in this rheumatoid arthritis lab. And I was like, 17. But it was so funny working with this nurse, and she's explaining all of the aspects of patient care. And it was so cool to be able to do that. You know, I did it like full time. What does, how many hours a week at school like 30 hours a week. And it was so much fun. And then at the end, too, I was really, really good friends with the nurse who introduced me to the world of rheumatoid arthritis. But for me, it was so traumatic. Everyone would just be like, covered in like this scaling skin. And I don't know how she did it. Yeah, but some people would come in so bad. And she'd be like, Oh, honey, don't look, go over here. But after that, I was like, wow, I definitely don't want to be a doctor anymore. I'm gonna go with Jo and do my PhD.

Johanna vanderSpek

Isn't it funny how you decide you don't want to be an MD? Yeah. And then you’re interested in research? Yeah.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah. Want to? Well, then I started thinking about—oh, go ahead.

Johanna vanderSpek

No, it's just that you know, that when the students come into biotech, a lot of them think “MD,” and then they start learning about science. And they're like, oh, and then they start getting specific, oh, I want to work on this. I want to work on that, you know, I want to do, and it's and it works. The STEM programs, STEAM programs, being in a program, where you meet people who are doing it, you know, and you realize you can do it, it helps tremendously.

Cielo Sharkus

It does. And the common misconception when I was in middle school, everyone would be like, don't go to a trade school, you won't go to college, you won't get a good job. And I don't know where that came from. But for Jo, and like her program, she creates such high quality, powerful researchers. It's really incredible. So what were some of the places that students have gone? I know, it's maybe been a long time, but I know there's some at Harvard.

Johanna vanderSpek

Oh Brown, Columbia, UMass Amherst. There's just one University of Vermont. So many, I mean, yeah, a couple of the different…Worcester State. Alright, so a lot of the students, they get a little upset when they don't go somewhere else. But honestly, we had also well, the tech high school is about 60 to 63%, non-white. And a lot of the people, the students there are also they've, you know, they're from other countries, they're immigrants. And their parents have done a lot to get here. So they really, you know, they want their kids to be educated. And it's just, you know, I'm losing my train of thought now. I mean, they're just a really diverse group. And, you know, it's important, it's so important to them to do well. A lot of them end up going to Worcester State, because they have single mothers also. And they can't go anywhere else.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, there's a big obligation for taking care of other people as a woman.

Johanna vanderSpek

Yes, yes, exactly. And so they go to Worcester State, and they feel badly about it. And they shouldn't, because from Worcester State, you can still go somewhere else. You know, some of them go to the community college. And they say, go, but wow, that's a great way to save money. And then from there, UMass will take you. Right. And it just, you know, they feel badly about it. But, man, there was, I remember a guy came in to speak at Tech, and he was one of the first or if not the first Afro-American astronaut. Were you there when he came in to speak?

Cielo Sharkus

No, I wasn't there.

Johanna vanderSpek

He went to, you know, he didn't go to a big hunky great name college, and he, he ended up becoming an MD and an astronaut. So you can do it. So don't feel bad about that. Because here we were naming Brown and Harvard and Columbia and stuff. Yeah, but…

Cielo Sharkus

There’s been a lot of incredible success from community colleges as well. I know, when I was in high school, Jo, and with the help of other Worcester Tech staff, sent myself and some of my friends to community college at night where we did like dual enrollment. So even then, it was really wonderful getting to see how you can still advance your degree while also saving money. And I really liked it there. It was nice.

Johanna vanderSpek

Yeah, and I'm glad you brought that up. Because that's true too. Doing that, you get to find out hey, I can do this. Because so many students are afraid to go to college. And then they go, they take one of these programs and they have all other programs too that you can take and it's like, hey, I can do this.

Cielo Sharkus

So when you're encouraging young girls or even young woman, it's really important to be able to help them figure out their path. But most of all being comfortable with where you're at. So Jo's helped me become extremely comfortable with where I'm at. So you know, I went to WPI for undergrad, struggled pretty severely there. And then when it came to graduate school, and I was thinking about all these big heavy hitters like MIT, Ithought about Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. Joe actually convinced me to go to UMass, because that's where I felt the most comfortable, you know. I had the best advisor there, the best resources, still close to home. And sometimes I feel like it is humbling, thinking about what could have happened, but it's nice knowing that the best place I could have been was here, with Jo along my side, because without that, we wouldn't have been able to start some of the things we've started, right?

Johanna vanderSpek

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, Cielo has started up a charity. And she asked me to be on it with her. And we're doing what I consider to be some pretty exciting work right now. I hope, we're applying for a grant, I hope we get it. And it's to help underrepresented minorities in Holyoke.

Cielo Sharkus

I hope we get it too.

Johanna vanderSpek

You know, so, And it's working with a great group of people.

Cielo Sharkus

That's one of the things I've been thinking about recently, like, you know, had Jo not started that program, maybe I wouldn't have been here at all doing justice work. And had we not started this nonprofit, doing this charitable work, perhaps environmental injustices would have continued to happen in Western Mass without outside intervention. So that's what I really love to think about this impact of scale, this butterfly effect that you really have when you're a mentor and the steps that you can take to create wonderful opportunities for your mentees, because there are a lot of mentors who hold you back in a lot of ways. Right? And Joe and I actually, at WPI, we had the same problematic mentor.

Johanna vanderSpek

I remember her because I worked at WPI, it was the last job I had before I went back to school. Yeah.

Cielo Sharkus

But thinking about the some of the things she said, the way she made us feel, is incredible. Because we, we were in the same positions like, what is it? 30, 40 years apart?

Johanna vanderSpek

Yeah. Well, fortunately, I did not work for her. I worked for a woman who was quite nice. And part of the reason I left her is because she went back to England. Yeah, there was a faculty member who was kind of a pain in the butt. And before I forget, Cielo, I want to say, you had asked me earlier how we funded the program. Well, I, we started with some funding. I think it was a year or two later, I applied for help for math, life, science center because they, they have grants, and I got $100,000 for them. And then I think, not long after that, UMass Medical School gave over $800,000 to Technical High School for the biotechnology program.

Cielo Sharkus

Really incredible.

Johanna vanderSpek

Yeah, and that, you know, because they were seeing the program worked. Alright, they were seeing that students, you know, you know, they knew what was working that. And it just made such a huge difference, because then we didn't have to worry about getting the equipment we needed or updating stuff. And that was, you know, partially because, you know, while Sheila Harity was involved with that, the principal of the school. And of course, you know, you need to have good, a lot of good people to make all this work. And I'd like to, of course, give credit to the other teachers who were there. I mean, I don't know if I should say their names on a podcast, but I was not working alone, think it was my third year, I got another teacher in because the program was growing. And she was tremendous. And then after that, we had another great teacher, who was also tremendous. So the three of us were working together. And we were able to do so much with all the help the community was giving us too.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, yeah, the community help is so important too, because I feel like a lot of the time you can start as a, even as a researcher, you can start as like a climate justice engineer or whatever, in your community. But when you really don't get to know them, it's so insincere. And so like Jo's greatest power, in my opinion, is her ability to connect with the community. All of the students, parents who I know, all the students remember Jo extremely fondly because of the impact she had on the community, always hosting like outdoor lunches, all of those alumni events that you've hosted. All of the different programs you've done, she's just been such a big force in the community. It's, it's really hard to imagine Worcester Tech without her or even imagine, for me, like science without her. But given that you have that great impact, you have all these accolades, what suggestions would you give aspiring mentors, or even mentees out there who hope to create change and success on the scale that you did?

Johanna vanderSpek

Alright, so, to be a mentor, to start with, you got to make yourself available. Alright, let the students know you care about them that they can talk to you, you know, that you're available. And that makes it a lot easier for someone to ask you, will you help me with this or that. But the mentees, people who want to, you know, get a mentor, they also, they have to be outgoing enough to ask. They have to learn how to talk to people, I would say. Because when, when girls first start high school, I mean, you're 14 years old, you're afraid to talk to grownups. So you have to start well, in biotech, you know, you would start by you need to be able to talk to people. One of the things that we did, one of our goals in biotech was people should be able to give presentations. It wasn't just grownups that students were afraid to talk to, it was it like talking to a group of people, they were also scared. So one of the things they had to do was learn how to give presentations and answer questions, and learn that it was okay. And they were not the only ones who were nervous. So another example I have is, well, we had students designing experiments, and one girl was interested in a paper that she couldn't get online, a research paper. And I said to her, you know, if you look there, you find out who the first author was, you call that person and ask them to send you a copy of that. And she did that. And within 15 minutes, she had received the paper, you know, electronically, along with the letter from the primary investigator, saying, you know, this is wonderful that you did this, I can't believe you're working in high school, where you're studying, you know, all these different things. And you're interested in learning about this experiment. Good for you.

Cielo Sharkus

It's funny that people are so fascinated about Worcester Tech, I'll just give a brief like spiel about it. When I was, like 14 years old, I was doing genetic recombination, handling micropipettes, I was doing some advanced work that, like legitimately students, in their senior year of undergrad hadn't done. So it was extremely advanced. And so for me, Jo instilled a lot of confidence in me. And so, at an early age, even when I had my, like, 2.5 GPA at WPI, I was like, yeah, I know how to do all these things. I've been doing this for like, six years, and I was what, like 20 years old. It was, it was really incredible. And same thing when I went to graduate school, you know, now I've been doing science for like, a decade. And so when I talk to people about it, like, yeah, I've been doing this for a decade, I'm 24. People are like, what? So it's just, it's really inspiring for me, creating that at an early age.

Johanna vanderSpek

Yeah, you got to learn how to do that kind of stuff. Yeah, cuz nothing's gonna happen if you don't ask.

Cielo Sharkus

Right. And I really, I really love the fact that you empowered so many young women and girls, at all stages of their career. There's still a lot of students who talk to me, I'm kind of like the, I’m not gonna say the hearer, I'm kind of like the point of contact for Jo. Just because people know about our really advanced relationship. So Jo has helped me in so many really difficult spots. When I was struggling in undergrad, I did this study abroad, where I had a lot of the same experiences, Jo talked about racism, sexism, it was it was actually horrific. I won't go into detail about it. But all of my contacts from undergrad and like high school wouldn't reach out to me or they didn't respond. And so I was sitting there on the phone with Jo every night. And we're going over detail by detail on how to make my project be revived, we're trying to figure out how to make me succeed and thrive here, even despite every single day going into office and facing like racism and sexism. Even now, in graduate school. I can call Jo, when I'm having a difficult time with my thesis, or just some aspect of being a PhD candidate, and Jo will be there and respond. And I think that's really incredible. One of my proudest moments was when I graduated and I invited Jo, to the student of color reception. And she gave me this card, which I'm holding right now, I actually, I look at this all the time, when I want to leave grad school. You will enjoy the next steps of your life dot dot dot Dr. Sharkus. Oh my god, I think, I look at this and I cry. So sometimes, I've been traveling back and forth across the country a lot. And so I'll be on the plane looking at at the, at the clouds. And I'll just I'll actually be just like crying thinking about writing what I was going to say in my dissertation acknowledgments about Jo and having her there. It actually makes me really emotional now because I just really can't wait for that just how proud she will be of me. It keeps me going and I think a lot of students feel the same as I do.

Johanna vanderSpek

I mean, you know, when you were graduating from WPI, the president got up there and talked about you specifically. It was amazing. I was so proud of you. You know, you make me so proud. You know, when they, and it's just there been, you know, award ceremonies during the, you know, where kids it just. Yeah, I have had a lot of proud moments like that was being proud of the students. It's, it's because they work so hard.

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