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Shaping the Future: Microbiologists Career Inspired by Influential Teacher

Kayla Conner in the lab

A Michigan State University scientist is determined to increase the number of women and girls going into STEM fields. Kayla Conner is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics who says she wouldn’t be the student she is today if it weren’t for her high school chemistry teacher, Ms. Hardin.

Conner is part of MSU’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training, an experimental program dedicated to empowering graduate student trainees to develop professional skills and experiences. Recently, reporters with WKAR News sat down with some of the BEST students to learn more about their inspiring life stories. Listen to the audio clip to hear Conner’s story in her own words and those of Hardin.

Conner is currently studying what happens to the placenta when a woman gets an infection during pregnancy and what that could mean for the fetus. She’s researching possible ways to stop some of the negative consequences that happen because of infection.

“If a woman gets infected with any sort of ailment during pregnancy, whether it be the cold or the flu, it causes inflammation in the mother,” says Conner. “And that can lead to downstream effects, whether that is stillbirth, preterm labor, birth defects or even ailments later in life.”

Conner was raised in Maynardville, Tennessee, and attended a small high school where she found the atmosphere to be less than encouraging and lacking resources for students who wanted to pursue higher education.

“A lot of people have the mentality, ‘I’m from here so, therefore, I can’t,’ and it’s really sad,” she says. “I really don’t want people to have that mentality because even though you are from there you can do wonderful things. I don’t think I would have had that drive without Ms. Hardin.”

Conner looked up to her chemistry teacher and found encouragement to continue her studies.

“She told me how well I was doing even when I felt like I wasn’t,” says Conner. “I thought, ‘Man, you know if she thinks I can do it, then maybe I can.’”

Hardin says that Conner gives her too much credit.

“She has a scientific mind and she’s curious,” says Hardin. “It was obvious to me. She had a natural talent for it. As a teacher, I encourage all my students, especially girls, to not look at science and math as something that boys do. You work at it. You keep plugging away and you can do it too.”

For Conner, having women who have helped support her has been extremely important. “I’ve had women who told me that I can and who have helped me in every way they possibly can,” she says. “I think it’s important to give back and be that person for someone else. I go to the Girl Scout troops. I have a little outreach program where I do some hands-on activities and I give a talk. It’s a fun time.”

Only about 24 percent of the STEM workforce is made up of women. There have been studies that have shown that girls in lower education — elementary and middle school — show the same interest in STEM courses and enroll in courses at the same rates as their male student counterparts, but once it reaches the level of higher education, women do not seek out STEM courses as frequently as men do.

Conner recognizes the disconnect that is happening and strives to inspire talented women to pursue STEM careers.

“It’s not a man’s game,” Conner says. “It is absolutely a woman’s game as well. We can be awesome scientists and be awesome mothers, friends and daughters and be whatever we want to be.”

MSU BEST seeks to enhance trainees’ abilities to develop the confidence and competencies useful in navigating and choosing from diverse career opportunities. Learn more about becoming part of the BEST community.

Photos and video by Alec Gerstenberger.

Credit WKAR via MSU Today


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