Ask a kid to draw a picture of a scientist and you may get an older man with disheveled hair as white as his lab coat. Even though this is the archetypal image of a scientist, it only applies to a tiny portion of researchers.

“Scientists look like you or me,” said Nina Lauharatanahirun, a Virginia Tech graduate student in psychology who works in the laboratory of Brooks King-Casas, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “Kids should learn about the diversity of science directly from scientists within their own community.”

With that in mind, Lauharatanahirun developed a new outreach initiative aimed at connecting elementary, middle, and high school students with scientists in the Roanoke and New River valleys of Southwest Virginia.

“Science exists in an abstract bubble for a lot of kids,” said Lauharatanahirun. “Few people, especially children, have any idea what a biologist or a physicist does on a day-to-day basis.”

The initiative — Virginia Tech Science Connection Advisory Network, or VT-SCAN for short — is simple but effective. Lauharatanahirun recruits volunteers from a range of disciplines, and they summarize their work into something an elementary student could easily understand. The summary is paired with a photo of the scientist and placed on a website hosted by Virginia Tech. Anyone can scroll through it and email questions and comments. Lauharatanahirun uses the information to pair students with researchers. The process is ongoing as more mentors volunteer.

“The idea is for mentors and mentees to build meaningful relationships,” Lauharatanahirun said. “And the scientists involved not only get the personal satisfaction of giving back to the community, but they also learn to advise. In academia, it’s an invaluable skill.”

Lauharatanahirun briefly worked as an after-school coordinator for elementary students in Los Angeles while completing her bachelor’s degree. After college, she was a behavioral therapist and research coordinator for children with developmental disabilities in Houston, Texas. These experiences left lasting impressions.

“The classroom didn’t have science supplies, and the students had never been to a college campus,” Lauharatanahirun said of her time in Los Angeles. “But once they were exposed to the possibilities, they started to believe that they could be scientists and doctors.”

VT-SCAN is supported by Virginia Tech through the Diversity Scholars Program, which encourages graduate students to develop projects to promote diversity and inclusion. Lauharatanahirun’s venture fit the bill.

“With the website, people can say, ‘Hey, that scientist looks like me. They live where I live. How did they get started? How did they become successful?” said Danette Gomez Beane, director of the Office of Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives at Virginia Tech. Gomez Beane headed the selection committee for the Diversity Scholars Program, composed of faculty from across the university.

Selection committee members reviewed several applications and agreed that Lauharatanahirun’s proposal encompassed everything for which they hoped.

“This project includes outreach, technology, Virginia Tech scientists, the local community — it’s the perfect formula,” Gomez Beane said. “Beyond that, it’s achievable and it’ll make a difference. And Nina is committed to seeing it succeed.”

To date, more than 30 volunteer mentors have profiles posted on the website.

“It’s working. Kids are participating. They’re asking questions,” Lauharatanahirun said. “The next step is do more outreach in the community while we continue to build the database of mentors.”

The active community outreach will include students shadowing researchers in laboratories and scientists giving guest lectures at local schools.

“This is a way for kids to develop relationships with scientists within their community,” Lauharatanahirun said. “And Virginia Tech will continue to support the program even after I graduate.”

To learn more, visit the VT-SCAN website. 

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

Written by Ashley WennersHerron.