STEM is for Everyone: There are many paths to a career in science

November 9, 2023
STEM is for everyone—you don’t have to be a super-genius to make a big impact in science, inside and outside the lab.

Ask your average middle or high school student what they want to be when they grow up, and chances are, “neuroscientist” isn’t top of mind. Many students feel like a career in STEM—science, technology, engineering, or mathematics—is out of reach because they aren’t naturally gifted at science or math, or because they aren’t a “super genius”.

But if you ask a neuroscientist if you have to be a scientific prodigy to have a career in science, most will say absolutely not. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to become a neuroscientist. More than anything, you need a passion for your subject and the drive to take on challenges.

In that spirit, MPFI neuroscientist Maria Jose Olvera Caltzontzin, Ph.D. and Education Outreach Coordinator Erica Eggerman took their love of brain science on the road this semester in collaboration with Junior Achievement of the Palm Beaches and Treasure Coast to share an important message with local young learners: Staying true to yourself, working hard, and seizing opportunities are the most crucial steps you need to take to become a successful STEM professional.

Remember Who You Are

Students at Forest Hill Elementary in West Palm Beach interviewed Dr. Olvera Caltzontzin, a postdoctoral fellow at MPFI, as part of the JA Hispanic Heritage Speaker Series 2023. This series features professionals who share their experiences and career journeys with young learners.

Students peppered Dr. Olvera Caltzontzin with questions about her career in integrative neural circuits behavior—the science behind how the brain changes when we experience feelings or our needs are met. From a neuropsychology perspective, she explained, she wants to know how neural pathways in the brain communicate, work together, and break.

Meeting and overcoming challenges is part of Dr. Olvera Caltzontzin’s culture, she explained. Staying true to herself and her culture gives her the confidence to keep seeking moments to learn. “Moments are everything in life,” she said. “And you are never alone. Surround yourself with people who support you, who you trust, and who will celebrate with you.”

In science, she concluded, “Don’t forget about the people next to you. We don’t come into this world alone. We come with others—we don’t always have to be shining stars. We do better together, working as a whole galaxy together.”

Seize Opportunities to Get into Science

Erica Eggerman, Education Outreach Coordinator at MPFI, spoke with students at Everglades Preparatory Academy in Pahokee as part of the JA Invest in Your Health series. There are many ways to excel in a STEM career, Eggerman shared, from conducting experiments in a lab to analyzing data and sharing science stories on social media. She described how she originally earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, which led to launching a research career.

“You don’t have to know everything about all aspects of science,” she emphasized. “Just pick one thing you are passionate about.” Eggerman also highlighted the alternative STEM pathways of several colleagues:

  • Abraham Rivera is a CNC machinist at the institute who creates specialized equipment for scientists to perform their experiments. After serving in the military following high school, Abraham was working in a factory, where exposure to machining sparked a new passion for him. He took college classes at night to gain more training in machining before applying to work at MPFI.
  • Katie Shirley is a Light Microscopy Technical Assistant at MPFI. She participated in the MPFI High School Summer Internship, applying for the mechanical engineering track as she was experienced in motor mechanics. However, once here, it was identified that her troubleshooting skills would be a good fit to work with optics. After a successful internship, she was hired to work full time in the microscopy core, while she is pursuing her BS in the evenings.

Curious About a STEM Career?

STEM is projected to be one of the fastest-growing career areas in the next decade. Even if you don’t think science is for you, one of the various aspects of science might be: animal care, communications, information technology, community outreach, or digital storytelling.

The Max Planck Society is the No. 1 nonprofit biomedical research organization in the world, and MPFI is the only Max Planck Institute in the U.S. Our goal is to help as many young learners fulfill their dreams in a STEM career, and we offer outreach opportunities year-round to get involved:

  • Summer High School Internships: These paid opportunities are open to rising juniors and seniors in Palm Beach and Martin County schools. Internship opportunities range from in mechanical engineering projects, data science, and neuroscience.
  • Brain Bee: This annual trivia contest challenges teams of Pam Beach and Martin County students to earn cash prizes and earns teachers $1,000 in STEM raffle prizes for their classrooms. Each team is provided with study materials to prepare for the big day.
  • Brain Exploration Day: This bi-annual open house invites children, parents, and teachers to explore MPFI labs. Our team of over 100 scientists volunteer to build hands-on activities that explain their areas of science.

Opportunities in STEM can seem unattainable, but there are so many ways to turn your passion into your livelihood. Through hard work and willingness to try new things, you can build a satisfying career, inside or outside the research lab. Explore community outreach programs today.

For media inquiries, contact Katie Edwards at katie.edwards@mpfi.org.