Debra Yourick ’80, director of science education and strategic communications at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, is a member of the Kalamazoo College Alumni Executive Board as well as the Board of Trustees.
In 25 years, I’ve supported dozens of paid internships for K students in my research. I’ve hosted them in my house, and we’ve worked and carpooled together every day. We remain connected through Facebook, Hornet Happy Hours and the occasional visit. I have even protested with them on the National Mall! What’s going on? We connect through our invisible bond that is K.
Here’s the historical SITREP (Army lingo for “situation report”). Neither of my parents went to college. I thought that my love of biology could translate into becoming a physician. I had no real role models, just those who played doctors on TV. I also had a passion to study toxicology because of an industrial mistake involving polybrominated biphenyls that devastated a family at a farm near my family’s in St. Joseph County, Michigan (and frankly, many other Michigan families and their farms). I didn’t know anything about careers in science; there were few to ask in my school and community and, besides, I wasn’t good at asking. I’ve only learned this skill slowly through many K connections and more.
It was the mid-1970s and my mother had made it clear that I couldn’t go to the University of Michigan. Drugs? Free love? What she’d heard, I can’t say. My parents and I didn’t even understand or think about visiting colleges to select one for me and, besides, long and odd work hours would have made it difficult. Luckily, K found me by coming to my high school. Thank you, K! The girl who went to K would be changed forever. At K, I changed the way I spoke, thought and learned while my world view expanded—so many intangibles.
Learning biology through inquiry-based approaches in K classes and during my Senior Individualized Project (SIP) on combined hexachlorophene and aliphatic alcohol toxicity showed me what scientists did and the discoveries they could make. With a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology, I joined a neuroscience group at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), where my research has centered on treatments for brain injury. Once settled, I also began to pass on my unique education by mentoring my first K student in her SIP. That was just the beginning.
Through my own extraordinary mentors and interns, I co-founded what is now an Army laboratory-wide education program named GEMS—Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science. GEMS now helps about 2500 students every summer, from Washington, D.C., to El Paso, Texas, to learn science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through hands-on modules during a paid internship. WRAIR’s program will host over 700 participants in 2018, mostly from underrepresented groups in STEM. K students can often be found among the near-peer mentors (NPMs) who create and teach the modules. One of my early K student NPMs (2007), Dr. Emily Kuehn ’10, went on to a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is now one of my National Academies fellows researching how NPMs in classrooms can reform science education in public schools. The work of K alum Asia Liza Morales ’15 was pivotal in this research.
I can’t take credit for the success of these mentees since all brought their own intangibles—quick, creative, critical minds and their hard work, never-ending enthusiasm, and humor. I continue to host them for what they bring to me and my work.
So remember, K has tons to offer you even if you left almost 38 years ago. When given the chance to mentor students and volunteer at K, connect and connect again! You’ve got nothing to lose and “more in a lifetime” to gain, even now.
The intangibles of a K education may not be so intangible after all.
P.S. For the Army folks out there, let’s give a huge “Hooah!” to K!
For more information about how you can get involved in mentoring K students, visit http://www.kzoo.edu/alumni/get-engaged/
SHARE YOUR EXPERIENTIAL EXPERIENCE
Experiential education is one of the pillars of the K-Plan. We want to hear from you about how experiential learning at Kalamazoo College—an internship, community service, hands-on research, activities tied to study abroad—helped put you on a career path or influenced your life in some other way. We’ll share some of your stories in an upcoming edition. Please describe your experience and what you got from it in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to:
1200 Academy Ave.
Kalamazoo, MI 49006
Be sure to include your phone number so we can get in touch with you!