High school students taking part in Unite, a nationwide program that helps historically underserved students pursue college degrees in STEM fields, heard firsthand from someone playing a critical role in the battle against COVID-19 about the importance of math and science.

Christian Williams, a research chemist who is site lead at the Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System in Blacksburg, spoke via Zoom to the class of high schoolers participating in Unite, a two-year grant awarded to Virginia Tech’s TRIO Programs. The grant supplements the Upward Bound program, adding STEM classes to a six-week summer session that gives talented high school students from underserved populations a taste of college life. Although usually held on campus, this year’s programs were held virtually.

In addition to its connection to Virginia Tech through the decontamination facility, Battelle is also a leading funder of Unite through the Army Educational Outreach Program. 

Williams said he felt a personal duty to help tackle the shortage of personal protective equipment in hospitals after his fiancee, an intensive care unit nurse, was informed she would receive only one N95 mask. When Battelle got a contract to set up decontamination sites, Williams knew that “if anybody was going to sign up to help, that should probably be me.”

He led a team that transformed the open-air band shell used by the Marching Virginians into an enclosed facility. There, masks are washed, dried, and tested for contamination before being sent back to hospitals and other facilities.

In addition to explaining the hows of his current work, Williams also talked to the students about the value of education and other life lessons. “My best teachers in high school taught me the importance of learning the right way to study, putting in your best effort, and focusing your time,” he said.

“Once you get to college, you’re on your own and you have to be responsible, and learning the best way to study for exams and retain information really helped me in college,” he said.

Williams also offered lessons on handling change, recounting how he shifted course and decided not to become a doctor. “Upsetting my family was probably the biggest thing that I had to get over. But I realized this world needs good people in every profession. Find what you love and run with it.”

Frances Clark, director of Virginia Tech TRIO Programs, said hearing from professionals working in STEM fields helps students better imagine their future and make good choices now to reach their goals.

“The world of work is often much bigger than our students know and realize. Most will be the first in their families to earn a four-year degree, so exposing them to different careers and the varying paths to achieve them will hopefully help our students envision their own future success and empower them to branch out into unfamiliar territory.”

TRIO Programs, part of Outreach and International Affairs, provides cultural and academic support to participants across Southwest Virginia. The programs bring new and creative ideas to help low-income individuals, first-generation students, military veterans, adult learners, and other underrepresented populations increase their confidence, build skills, and make informed decisions that will assist them in pursuing postsecondary education.

− Written by Diane Deffenbaugh