When Deairra Fox-Brown began the Introduction to Molecular Engineering course at the University of Chicago this summer, she was thinking she’d like to pursue a career in organic chemistry. Thanks to an inspiring teacher who showed her the range of challenges and opportunities in immunoengineering, she’s shifted her ambitions.
Fox-Brown – first name pronounced “like Sierra,” she said – was pursuing an associate’s degree in chemistry at Kennedy-King College when Prof. Sangita Deb there told her about the summer course designed especially for City Colleges of Chicago students and offered by UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME).
She was immediately interested, having grown up in Hyde Park exploring the UChicago campus – “it’s like a Harry Potter setting,” she said – and wanting to understand more about opportunities to pursue her science education.
“I think the main idea was to have the City Colleges students get more involved with what's really going on in science,” said Fox-Brown, 20.
The three-week, non-credit session aims to show those students paths to four-year STEM degrees and help address the underrepresentation of minority students in science and engineering. In addition to college readiness and admissions advice, it provides them with the laboratory experience so critical for success at four-year colleges.
It certainly worked its magic on Fox-Brown. She is preparing to apply to four-year programs in the biological sciences, likely including UChicago, she said, and possibly schools in China to take advantage of her Mandarin skills and desire to see the world.
She credited Joe Reda, a doctoral candidate in molecular engineering and an instructor in the immunoengineering portion of the program, with being particularly inspirational, showing students the creativity involved in the immunoengineering field, and sharing what he knew about higher ed.
“He really spoke to our knowledge, which I really loved,” said Fox-Brown. “He was very, very involving, and asked a lot of questions about what we're interested in.” Other portions of the course focus on quantum engineering and material science and engineering.
The National Science Foundation found that in 2018 underrepresented minority students received less than a fourth of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. In master’s degrees in those fields, the proportion fell to 22% and in doctoral degrees to under 14%.
The Pew Research Center broke those 2018 numbers down further: It found that Latinx students earned 12% of the country’s bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields, while Black students earned 7%. The next year African-American enrollment proportions were in the single digits in master’s and doctoral programs in science, engineering and health.
The introduction to molecular engineering course has been part of PME’s mission since 2019, when the Pritzker Foundation made a $100 million commitment to the University’s molecular engineering program, elevating it from an institute to a school.
In December 2021, the University and City Colleges strengthened their relationship with a formal memorandum of understanding focused on increasing diversity in science careers.
The close collaboration between the institutions “provides an opportunity for us to deepen our engagement with more students across Chicago and to create more pathways for them into STEM careers,” UChicago President Paul Alivisatos said at the time.
Such opportunities are vitally important to students, especially those who might not picture themselves in a nontraditional field like science or engineering, said Fox-Brown.
“It’s very important to be inclusive with different groups of people… giving them a role model, giving them something to look forward to,” she said.
And it didn’t hurt that the summer’s PME program gave each of the seven participating City Colleges students a $1,500 stipend. “It was getting paid to do what you love to do, which is amazing,” she said.
Having earned her associate’s degree mostly remotely during the pandemic, the PME program was the first time she got to do hands-on laboratory work, she said.
“I was definitely hoping for what I received, which is getting a clearer insight on which field exactly I wanted to go into,” Fox-Brown said. “The program opens you up to more options.”