MIT professor encourages students to consider careers in the sciences

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Catherine Drennan stands in front of 30 students at Highland Elementary School. She wears a white lab coat and moves her arms expressively as she speaks.

“Have any of you ever heard of MIT?” she asks the students. The 9- and 10-year-olds are quiet.

Then she asks, “Have any of you every heard of Iron Man?” Every student stretches an arm high into the air. A giggle flutters through the room.

Drennan smiles and says, “Tony Stark went to MIT. It is a school for scientists and engineers. It stands for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” The kids smile at one another and whisper excitedly.

Drennan, a professor of chemistry and biology from MIT, visited with fourth- and fifth- graders at Highland Elementary School on Thursday through a grant awarded by the Jean Dreyfus Boissevain Lectureship for Undergraduate Institutions.

Willamette University is one of five undergraduate institutions to receive the award, which funded her visit. Along with visiting Highland and other elementary schools, Drennan spoke at a Willamette community banquet and at Gilgamesh Brewing — where she talked with educators about how to make large classes interactive during the age of technology.

“Chemistry crosses across so many fields,” Drennan says. “I hope more young people start to think of chemistry as a career.”

At Highland, Drennan was focused on getting students excited about science. She talked to them about how chemistry and biology can be used to develop new medicines, how she uses X-ray crystallography to look at enzymes, and how her job enables her to travel everywhere from Brazil to Japan.

Drennan also worked with Willamette students who are part of the university’s Webber program. Through the program, female science students help elementary students cultivate an understanding and passion for science.

“A lot of people have a notion that most scientists are men,” Drennan says. “There is a lot more diversity in chemistry today than most think, but we would love to see more.

“Every discipline benefits from diversity. We need the best and brightest in the field as chemistry faces some of the biggest problems in the world today.”

Chemistry professor Chuck Williamson hopes the students gained a lot from Drennan’s message.

“We specifically chose Dr. Drennan because of her connections with education,” he says. “She’s an excellent role model for female scientists in biochemistry, and the Webber program is all about helping kids see that women and scientists go perfectly hand-in-hand together.”

Webber student and physics major Elisa Ahern ’15 says that Drennan’s visit was significant for the Highland students.

“It is good for the students to see someone who does research and works in the field,” Ahern says. “She is very passionate about her work, and it is important to see someone, especially a woman, who works in science.”

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