THE NATURALIST DOCTORAL STUDENT INSPIRES THE NEXT GENERATION OF WOMEN IN SCIENCE
Nobody ever told Allie Graham that science is for boys. “My family just supported me,” said Graham, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology, adding that a family friend who was a paleontologist was a strong role model. Ultra-organized and energetic, Graham is conducting her research in the lab of Kushlan Chair in Waterbird Biology and Conservation Kevin McCracken. She is using tissue samples from Andean waterfowl to determine how their genes adapt to their high-altitude environment. This involves large-scale data sequencing of the birds’ genomes. She speaks enthusiastically about her work, explaining, “I have always been fascinated with birds.” Graham has also taught genetics courses at UM. She took the initiative to introduce new methods, such as bioinformatics, and research opportunities into her labs, aiming to give students (many of whom are pre-health) experiences that will help them in their future studies and careers. She skillfully explains the student research projects she designed. One investigates the genetics behind the bitter taste receptors on the tongue, and another addresses the genetic consequences of domestication
Top and Bottom: South Florida Girl Scouts visit UM to earn their Naturalist Badges.
“My experience in Girl Scouts was so important to me, I wanted to give back.” in dogs. Both were meant to convey the importance of basic research, in combination with medically relevant topics. Her re-tooled labs have been extremely successful, and many of her strategies were adopted across the Department of Biology. “I thought about what really would have interested me as an undergrad,” Graham said, adding, “There is amazing support and resources for grad students at UM.” Graham earned the Outstanding Teaching Assistant award for the department last year, and it is clear that she is proud of bringing meaningful innovation to the classroom. But she truly lights up when she talks about scientific outreach – particularly her work with the Girl Scouts of Southeast Florida. Each April, Graham organizes a Naturalist Badge Day, which brings 50 young girls aged 8 to 11 (Brownies and Juniors, in Girl Scout lingo) to campus for a day of discovery. The Brownies group focuses on bugs. They view a presentation on different classes/orders of bugs, make insect masks, examine various insect specimens under a microscope, visit the Gifford Arboretum to observe insects in their natural environments, and talk to UM faculty who use insects to answer biological questions. In its activity on flowers, the Juniors group learns about the parts of a flower and gathers specimens in the Arboretum. They then return to the lab, where they create corsages and home-made perfume from the flowers they collected. They discuss the biology of why flowers smell good (or bad), and interact with UM faculty who are expert botanists. “Even if the girls do not become scientists, they gain an appreciation for nature and for being outdoors,” Graham said. She launched the Naturalist Badge Day event in 2014, and will replicate it in April 2015.
“We had a great experience. It was so much fun,” Graham said, adding, “Their enthusiasm makes all the difference.” About a dozen UM graduate students and faculty participate in the activity. Most are women, providing accessible examples for the girls. “Scientists are real people. I try and portray myself as a scientist, but also as a regular person,” Graham said. “You don’t have to be a genius – you just have to have the enthusiasm.” Graham herself was a Girl Scout for more than ten years, earning a Silver Award, the second-highest honor possible, which recognizes recipients’ accomplishments in scouting, their community, and their personal lives. “My experience in Girl Scouts was so important to me,” Graham said. “I wanted to give back.” Before coming to UM in 2012, Graham helped teach the Genetics and Evolution Laboratory at Duke University. While at Duke, she participated in a badge event for local Boy Scouts. She built upon that program to design the Naturalist Badge Day program for Girl Scouts here in South Florida. Graham earned her master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and her B.Sc. from RandolphMacon Woman’s College. She received a Maytag Fellowship to study at UM, which includes full tuition remission and a stipend for three years. She expects to complete her Ph.D. in six years, and then plans a career in academia. The Naturalist Badge is part of the Girl Scouts’ Generation STEM initiative, which aims to close the gender gap for girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. It offers STEM activities that are relevant to everyday life for scouts of all ages. ARTS | SCIENCES