Vicki Weston, science on the brain

November 30, 2006
Vicki Weston in class

 Gary Ybarra

Initially, Vicki Weston intended to spend a sophomore-year independent study tutoring local schoolchildren—a fulfilling activity, no doubt, and not too time consuming.

But as she talked over the plan with her adviser, Bradley Hammer, adjunct assistant professor of the practice in education, something didn't seem right. "I wanted to do something bigger," she recalls.

Weston, now a junior, thought back to a science camp she had attended as a child. Like many young girls, she had often felt overshadowed by the boys in her science classes. But this camp was special. It was girls only. She remembers one activity where they examined rat brains. "I just thought it was amazing that something so small could be so complex." The knowledge that she gained, and more important, the sense of not being afraid to speak up, was empowering. Now a psychology major with a concentration in neuroscience, she was confident she could use her independent study to organize a similar experience for girls in Durham.

After extensive discussions with Hammer and Gary Ybarra, a professor of the practice of electrical and computer engineering who has worked with other science-education programs, Weston conceived what would become Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Sciences (FEMMES), a free, one-day, hands-on science camp for local girls in grades four to six.

She sent out e-mail messages and met with female faculty members whom she envisioned leading activities in their fields of expertise. She worked with Trinity College associate dean Mary Nijhout to come up with funding. She organized an executive board of students to help her reserve space, rent tables, order food for lunch, and keep track of details. She recruited and trained graduate- and undergraduate-student volunteers to serve as activity assistants and group leaders.

Weston credits local parents and school principals for spreading word of FEMMES. "I said from the start I wanted 100 to 150 students," she says. "We got to 150, and eventually I had to turn my phone off, there were so many people still calling, asking if there was any way their daughter could get in." The participants, she says, represented a large demographic mix. "I had volunteers comment that it was a day when a lot of barriers broke down," she says.

On the day of the event, in late February, the girls moved from room to room, practicing engineering principles using toothpicks and marshmallows, learning about genes by creating a family of imaginary creatures, and testing plants and household products for the presence of salicylate, an aspirin-like substance. "It's hard for me to sit through a long lecture, even as a college student," Weston says. "I wanted to make sure the activities were hands on, that they actually got to do something, to get their hands dirty."

Having female faculty members and students lead the activities was important, Weston says, to show the girls "that a scientist is not necessarily a man in a lab coat." The overriding message of the day, she says, was "You can take this as far as you want to."

And, in a way, that's exactly what she plans to do with FEMMES. Weston, who also served as The Chronicle's health and science editor last year and is a member of the Alpha Phi sorority, has recruited sophomores Allison Elia and Aubrey Bonhivert to help her organize the spring 2007 version of the camp. The plan is for FEMMES to become an annual event, with organizing responsibilities passed down year-to-year by female undergraduates.

Weston, of course, will move on after graduation but plans to find a career in science. And she's still just as curious as she was as a young girl at science camp. "I really like knowing how things work," she says. "Look at DNA, how that ends up becoming RNA, how that ends up becoming a protein. It's just so interesting how it all fits together on a smaller level, how it all happens."