STEM, a concept based on educating children and young adults in four specific academic disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math, has been rapidly gaining popularity since it was introduced nearly 20 years ago. Governments and schools around the world have made attracting students of all ages to study STEM-based subjects at school a priority to ensure there will always be qualified candidates for high-tech/science-based jobs in the future.
Because of this emphasis, volunteers from a wide range of career backgrounds donate their time, enthusiasm, and real-world experience to help bring STEM topics to life and inspire students into finding their calling in these life-changing, rewarding fields.
Jason Turner, a Senior Project Manager with PRA Health Sciences’ Strategic Solutions (home based in Edinburgh, Scotland), currently serves as a STEM ambassador. With more than two decades of clinical research experience, he connects with students and generate excitement about what the future holds for those interested in the dynamic life sciences field.
Jason shares what motivates him to serve as an ambassador and to participate in STEM events following a recent session at a local primary school in Livingston, Scotland, UK:
How did you first get interested in the STEM ambassador program?
I am a father to an 11-year-old boy who is about to leave primary school and go on to high school next year, so I have an active interest in what he is interested in and what sort of subjects he might want to consider studying in later life, which is what attracted me to becoming a STEM ambassador. I have been working in clinical research since 1996, and I hope that he will take a long-term interest in STEM subjects and become as enthusiastic as I was to study them at school.
I’ve worked with kids a lot over the years, having spent a summer in upstate New York, USA as a counselor and instructor at a summer camp for children 6-16 years old. I’ve also been a school football coach and volunteered for the local Scouts at times. Using my near 25 years in clinical research to speak to young people about careers in this sector was a natural fit.
What are some of the things the kids ask (or that you share with them) about your work at PRA, as it relates to STEM?
I most recently attended a mini-careers fair STEM session at Mid Calder Primary School, near my home town of Edinburgh. It was very well-received and attended by over 20 other parents with careers in their own sectors and enthusiastic kids who were extremely interested in what we all did. They were keen to ask me about what got me into this science and research area. I wanted to be a forensic scientist at school (as well as a pilot) but didn’t enjoy the lab work. I liked the theory around the science and understanding how body chemistry worked much more. They also wanted to know what I enjoyed the most about the job. For me, it’s working on exciting therapies that make a difference in patients’ lives and seeing products you have worked on being dispensed to patients that need them. They also were curious about what I didn’t enjoy about the job – all the emails and meetings I have to attend – but that just comes with the territory!
I talked in detail about my current role at PRA Health Sciences, whereby I am working for a US-based sponsor in the field of Cystic Fibrosis research in particular and how this relates to children, given it’s an inherited/genetic condition, so it’s something you have from birth. I discussed some of the simple science around the condition and how it affects the organs in the body that produce mucus (increased volumes) and sweat (salty) in particular. I gave real-life examples of what it’s like to experience some of the symptoms, such as increased phlegm (got them to try coughing and imagine they were unable to clear their chests) and had them recall that terribly uncomfortable feeling you get when you swallow water at the pool, or how it feels to be covered in very salty sweat after playing football in the park. I showed them images of drugs used for treatments and how body parts are affected by the condition and explained how simple genetic disorders get passed from one generation to the next.
How do you see STEM education as part of a foundation for work in a field like clinical trials?
A STEM curriculum is vital in preparing students for jobs within our industry. PRA attracts many young graduates that are well-informed in science subjects, and the innovative work that takes place at PRA often requires education and knowledge of other STEM areas.
Having coursework and educational materials that explain where medicines and treatments come from can stimulate students’ interest at an early age and lead them to choose a career in clinical research that they might otherwise have overlooked. We conduct trials involving young people (often in Cancer, Respiratory disease, and Cardiovascular conditions), and even babies from time to time, so students see that our work can have a direct impact on their lives and also their friends’ and families’ lives.
The primary school I attended felt the recent STEM session was greatly beneficial, and they were very appreciative – they even tweeted their appreciation! So, with events like this, we could literally be inspiring and recruiting future PRA employees at the most grassroots level.
What do you hope kids will get from your/their participating in the program?
Science subjects can be fun and engaging! I hope to open doors to the field of science for them and hope that they gain an understanding of the different and exciting types of jobs they can have when they grow up. Science is all around us, whether on an iPad game, counting your pocket money, kicking a football into a goal, or even when you brush your teeth – science, technology, engineering, and math is everywhere, and children are their own best advocates and experimenters!
What would you say to someone who might be interested in becoming a STEM ambassador?
Being a STEM ambassador is easy – my colleagues and I serve as ambassadors by default every time we tell someone what we do at work. Having a career of any kind, from a police officer to a gardener or a doctor to a conservationist, means we had a passion at some point in our lives to want to make that career choice. A STEM ambassador is just someone who wants to share that experience with others and open their eyes to this opportunity.
The clinical research industry as a whole is getting more committed to this type of outreach and advocacy and encourages individuals to participate.
If you are a parent, you are also an ambassador – maybe without even realizing it – when you explain something to your kids or show them how something works. And there are opportunities out there for you to share your knowledge with other children as well.
STEM education is a global initiative, so a quick internet search will connect you to a number of organizations near you that promote STEM and a wealth of STEM resources (E.g., www.stem.org in the UK).
Being a STEM ambassador is extremely rewarding, and I encourage everyone interested in this worthwhile endeavor to take action – shaping caring young minds now will lead to a brighter and healthier future for us all!
Please contact Jason if you’d like to find out more.