On Pivotal Moments & Career Realities: Dr. Sibrina Collins, STEM enthusiast

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Dr. Sibrina Collins has always been an impressive scientist and educator. But it was a disappointment on her career journey that led her to discover and embrace her purpose.

After a heartbreaking denial of tenure, Dr. Collins shifted focus, thanks to the support and encouragement of her informal board of advisors – a group of other strong women scientists who would not put up with a pity party.

Their rallying forced Dr. Collins to realize her true purpose: making STEM relatable, interesting and accessible to women and people of color.

“And so it occurred to me that in my next role, I had to focus on STEM education and diversity in STEM,” she recalls. “Because those are the things that I’m passionate about.”

Dr. Collins spoke about her passion for equity and inclusivity in STEM on the 78th episode of The Make Meaning Podcast with Lynne Golodner.

As a chemist and executive director of the MarBurger STEM Center at Lawrence Tech University in Michigan, Dr. Collins wants to share her passion for STEM education and make it relatable to a wider audience.

The greatest part of her story is that she herself hadn’t planned on a future in STEM when she enrolled at a community college at the start of her academic career. And now she loves it.

Which is proof that anyone can discover a passion and a purpose in STEM careers.

After earning an A in a chemistry course, her confidence and interest in chemistry skyrocketed. She remembers saying to herself, “If this is all there is to chemistry, I will just be a chemist.”

Helping Students Understand What STEM Really Is

Since then, Dr. Collins has searched for ways to help others, especially students, understand that STEM is a part of everyday life, and a viable career path.

“STEM is a number of disciplines,” she says. “All your electronic devices, such as cell phones and laptops, require a battery and that’s STEM technology right there.”

So is cosmetics.

Dr. Collins created a course for girls and their mothers to learn what goes into cosmetics, and how that is, in fact, STEM. Lawrence Tech has welcomed mother-daughter pairs onto campus to make their own organic lip balm, learning practical applications for science at the same time.

“We need a robust talent pipeline to continue to fill these roles,” Dr. Collins insists.

Making it fun helps to open people’s eyes to the wide array of career possibilities within STEM. And, seeing a strong, African-American woman leading a university STEM program goes a long way toward sending a strong message that women and people of color have a place in STEM fields.

A Teachable Moment from the Black Panther Movie

STEM is such a prevalent part of Dr. Collins’ life that it follows her even when she’s not at work. “I can’t shut off my chemistry brain,” she said on the Make Meaning Podcast.

While at the movies watching the Marvel sensation Black Panther, she started thinking about the fictional element in the film, Vibranium. “I kept saying to myself, if that element was real, where would it be on the Periodic Table?”

She quickly recognized a unique and fun way to engage students in science and asked a colleague to pose a “bonus question” about Vibranium’s place on the Periodic Table on her next chemistry exam.

In an article that Dr. Collins co-authored for the Journal of Chemical Education, she referenced some students’ answers and emphasized the importance of inclusive science communication. The article quickly went viral on Twitter – again, making STEM accessible and interesting for a huge audience.

Creating Meaning For Students

After that, members of the chemistry faculty started reaching out to Dr. Collins about other concepts to connect to Black Panther and other films. “It occurred to me that you can really build an entire curriculum around these films,” she says. And what better way to bring STEM to the masses?

“You want to find something to connect with your students,” she says. “They need a hook that will keep them interested.”

While STEM can seem like a hard career to pursue, Dr. Collins is intent on sharing her natural passions and hard-earned successes as a way of showing how accessible the field is for others. Hopefully, by following her purpose and her passion, she is helping shape a generation that will change the world.