New award recognizes LSI community’s outreach activities

Scientific outreach is a cornerstone activity that supports the connection of research, teaching and service to the public. 

To recognize the value of such activities, and the many contributions of the U-M Life Sciences Institute’s community to such efforts, the institute is launching the LSI Outreach Awards for faculty, postdoctoral research fellows, research staff and students. These awards were made possible through gifts to the institute. 

“This new award formalizes the importance and priority of scientific outreach as part of the LSI’s core values embodied within each rank of our community,” says LSI Director Roger Cone. “The outreach activities of this year's awardees represent the many and varied ways that our community members are inspiring and supporting future generations to pursue scientific exploration.” 

Congratulations to the recipients of the first LSI Outreach Awards:

Tenure-track and tenured faculty category: Alison Narayan, Ph.D.

Alison Narayan, Ph.D.

Since joining the LSI faculty, Alison Narayan has made a concerted effort to support and act as a positive role model to younger generations of aspiring scientists. In addition to providing numerous student roles within her laboratory — where undergraduates, graduates and fellows can obtain real-world experience and insight into both basic chemistry research and the operations of a prolific lab — she takes time from her busy schedule to be involved in other student-focused activities. These outreach efforts affect students from K-12, undergraduate and graduate levels, exposing learners at all levels to the value of science as a career or in application to tackling inquiries with everyday life.

In collaboration with professors at neighboring universities and community colleges, Narayan is developing a biocatalysis lab for advanced high school and undergraduate laboratory courses. She has been directly involved in hosting fourth- to sixth-grade girls from local schools for a day of science, math and engineering on U-M’s campus. She currently serves as a faculty advisor for F.E.M.M.E.S. (short for Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and the Sciences), and she regularly meets with the F.E.M.M.E.S. board to help direct their activities, assists with funding support and facilitates resources for their work.

Narayan directly encourages each member of her lab to participate in outreach activities, fostering an environment that values for such efforts by her team. She and her research group participate in outreach efforts including serving as a science fair judges and aiding efforts by InnoWorks, a non-profit educational organization run by U-M undergraduate and graduate student volunteers that encourages students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds to enter STEM2 (science, technology, engineering, math and medicine) fields.

Research staff category: Savannah Williams, Cone lab

Savannah Williams

Savannah Williams was, and continues to be, a critical component of the effort to launch and grow the Aspirnaut program at the University of Michigan, providing more high school students from under-resourced communities with access to cutting-edge research experiences. The deep knowledge Williams developed through her involvement with the program at Vanderbilt facilitated the development of a structure at U-M that would enable the participants' success.

Williams also has been a regular participant with the Wolverine Express program, which takes faculty, staff, students, and alumni from U-M to under-resourced high schools across the state to promote higher education through sharing their stories of aspiration, education and career experience. It was through this program that Savannah became interested in connecting with students at Flint Southwestern Academy. Her connections at Southwestern enabled the LSI to recruit one of their top science students to the Aspirnaut program this last summer.

Postdoctoral research fellow category: Jonathan Nelson, Ph.D., Yamashita lab

Jonathan Nelson, Ph.D.

Jonathan Nelson participates in a range of activities to help engage K-12 students and the community in science and understand how to pursue a career in science. He has served as a presenter for tour groups in partnership with the Association of Multicultural Students for a science career day and also with the InnoWorks outreach group. He also participated in career day at Clague Middle School, where he discussed how he became a scientist, what he does in a normal work day and the diversity of science careers. He also organized and ran an interactive exhibit at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum called “Why study genes in fruit flies?” Most recently, he participated in a “Skype-a-Scientist" program, where he spoke with a fourth- and fifth-grade class in rural Virginia about being a scientist and using fruit flies to study biology.

Alumni category: Oleta Johnson, Ph.D., Program in Chemical Biology, Mapp lab alum

Oleta Johnson, Ph.D.

During her time at U-M, Oleta Johnson was active in leadership and outreach as a former president of F.E.M.M.E.S. This student-led organization reaches hundreds of girls from under-served communities across southeast Michigan each year, providing hands-on STEM workshops and annual capstone events, where elementary students can conduct experiments while their families learn more about how their child can excel in science.

Whiles serving as president of F.E.M.M.E.S., Johnson worked to bring a more diverse range of both STEM topics and scientists to the capstone events, particularly the physical sciences, to increase the reach of program. She also led a number of fundraising initiatives — including grant writing and pitches to departments and programs — that enabled F.E.M.M.E.S. to offer their services to a broader range of communities in the region. She was instrumental in bringing to campus the LSI’s first Diversity Summit speaker, Raychelle Burks, Ph.D., who also served as the keynote speaker for the F.E.M.M.E.S. capstone that fall — demonstrating Johnson’s aptitude for creating synergy between events for mutual benefit. As a graduate student, Oleta also participated in outreach and service through Students of Color of Rackham (SCOR) and the Translational Oncology Program’s “One Day Closer” event.

Graduate student category: Attabey Rodríguez Benítez, Narayan and Smith Labss

Attabey Rodríguez Benítez

Attabey Rodríguez Benítez is involved in several activities communicate about and to broaden access to science, particularly for under-represented communities. Recognizing that little content about science is communicated in languages other than English, she has served as a bilingual science writer (Spanish and English) and developed her own bilingual science blog to expand the community engaged in science. She serves as the curriculum director for the United InnoWorks Academy at Michigan, a summer camp dedicated to underserved minorities in middle school, and was a scientist pen-pal through the Letters to a Pre-Scientist organization. In addition, with the help of the Engaged Pedagogy Initiative, she is designing a course entitled “Women in Science,” which will illustrate the contributions of female scientists and include demonstrations of experiments. Benítez was trained by the Natural History Museum’s Portal to the Public program to design an outreach activity suitable for K-12 students, utilizing different teaching strategies. She also has been an active participant in F.E.M.M.E.S. since 2016, serving as a group leader and an activity leader.

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Top image: Jonathan Nelson, Ph.D., helps children at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum understand why scientists study genes in fruit flies.