As a young girl growing up in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, Inricka Liburd looked forward to nighttime, when the stars came out. “I was always interested in looking at the constellations,” said the second-year nurse practitioner student at MGH Institute of Health Professions. “I loved all of that.”
Fast-forward to Liburd decked out in a head-to-toe astronaut’s suit adorned with the blue NASA logo, speaking to small groups of fourth- and fifth-graders at Charlestown’s Harvard-Kent Elementary School library. Sitting at a table with a small model of the planets, she was role-playing as Dr. Mae C. Jemison, a physician and the country’s first female African American astronaut. Liburd was among 13 MGH Institute students who gave the elementary-school students examples of the contributions women and people of color have made in the sciences during Cultural Science Day, February 28.
Second-year OT student JP Bonadonna, who played Brazilian neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, launched the event at the IHP in 2019 as a way of providing students with role models in the sciences. “Studies show, when asked to draw who they believe is a scientist, kids tend to draw males, and it becomes more of an entrenched thought as they get older,” said Bonadonna, who as a co-founder of a non-profit launched a similar program in 2017 while he was a research technician at Arizona State University. “This is intended to be a fun and interactive event that can show these students that scientists come from diverse backgrounds and they can aspire to become one as well.”
When Alyssa Torchon enrolled at the MGH Institute as a speech-language pathologist student, she quickly learned that the profession was predominately white. So it was an easy decision for her to play Dr. Ianessa A. Humbert, an African American speech-language pathologist at the University of Iowa who researches swallowing disorders. “I never learned anything like this when I was in school,” said Torchon, while awaiting the next group of students to arrive where she would explain how a larynx works. “It’s important for kids to see that science is made by people from all backgrounds.”
A couple of tables away was second-year nurse practitioner student Dimitri Lamisere in the role of Dr. Samuel P. Massie, an African American chemist who was part of the Manhattan Project team that developed the atomic bomb and who later focused on medicinal treatments for infectious diseases. Across the room sat Maria Linton, a first-year occupational therapy student, as 19th-century British paleontologist Mary Anning, whose findings contributed to important changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.
Other Institute students participating included Bridget Carroll, a first-year OT student who played 19th-century astronomer Caroline Hershel, who discovered eight comets; Katie Kesler, a second-year OT student playing Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century English mathematician who is credited with being one of the first computer programmers; and Doriann Amadi, a second-year physical therapy student, who played Dr. Loretta Sweet Jemmott, an African American nurse who is one of the country’s foremost investigators in HIV/AIDS prevention. Two sets of IHP students split time in roles: first-year SLP Shaina DiLalla and second-year OT Emily Gomez played Rosalind Franklin, the 20th-century English chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose work was central to the understanding of molecular structures, including DNA; and third-year OTs Felice Mendez and Jasmin Torres played Ynes Mexia, a Mexican-American botanist who began her career in middle age and collected 145,000 specimens from Mexico, Peru, and Colombia.
The morning’s inspiration was heard loud and clear by Larissa, an African American fourth-grader who had just finished listening to Arial Lontoc, a first-year OT student playing Dr. Tsu-Hsin Howe, a Filipino-American occupational therapist who is an associate professor and interim department chair in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. “I think I’d like to become a scientist because I want to do things like this,” said Larissa.