Inspiring Through ASPIRE: Intern Empowers Young Women in STEM

Thu, 06/23/2022 - 17:17
Nicole Choi

Roshni Arun is just a week out of high school, but the ASPIRE intern is already on a mission to empower young women in STEM and increase student access to the resources available at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

In the summer of 2020, a year before her ASPIRE (APL’s Student Program to Inspire, Relate and Enrich) internship even began, Arun sat bored in her basement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Passionate about all things science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), she decided to spend her time conducting pertinent research on viruses. An idea sparked after she looked at her notes.

“I wanted to use my research notes to create a biotechnology curriculum,” she recalled. Before her summer vacation ended, Arun brought that idea to life.

Arun built and taught a five-day course to 10 elementary students over Zoom. Her course, “Viruses, Vaccines and Microscopes,” covered the structural variations of viruses and how they infect hosts, and concluded with a discussion about vaccine production and administration.

That summer she also set the foundation for the “Girls in STEM” educational and outreach effort, a collaboration with industry mentors to open pathways for young students to apply their knowledge.

One year later, Arun began her ASPIRE internship as a rising high school senior. ASPIRE, one of four APL STEM programs, pairs high school juniors and seniors with an APL mentor to complete projects, solve problems, and learn and apply critical technical and interpersonal skills in a hands-on professional environment. An advocate for bridging STEM disciplines, Arun immediately saw an opportunity to host a biotechnology workshop in APL’s new STEM Center.

Building a Biotech Workshop

In March 2022, Arun led 24 middle schoolers in a biotechnology workshop about immunology and 3D printing. She worked closely with APL’s STEM Academy program specialist Christina Romano to advertise the workshop and prepare the venue and materials for students. She also worked closely with her ASPIRE mentor, biological engineer Collin Timm of APL’s Asymmetric Operations Sector, to build an engaging curriculum and ensure the content was validated.

“Many of the young women coming to the workshop felt they were not smart enough or didn’t have enough experience to participate,” Romano said. “Roshni provided a safe learning environment for young women that allowed them to see a future for themselves in STEM. She is a role model to every young woman who participates in her workshops.”

Arun guided discussions about using 3D-printed materials to re-create microscopic parts of the human body, particularly organs infected with disease. At the end of the workshop, the students designed antibodies on Tinkercad, a 3D printing software.

Inspiring Through ASPIRE

After a formative high school chemistry class introduced her to the interdisciplinary path of biochemistry, Arun made it her mission to secure a wet-lab experience. She found that opportunity at APL.

This year, after her day ended at Wootton High School, Arun entered a wet lab in Building 201 to study the interaction of skin microbes and examine the difference in colony growth across various environments.

“APL has given me my dream internship,” she said. “I really appreciate how dedicated the mentors are.”

Arun has not only expanded the Lab’s student outreach efforts but also expanded her personal network of mentors across the Lab, which includes Andrea Timm, a chemical engineer in APL’s Research and Exploratory Development Department. As a result, she has grown more confident in experimental design and data analysis, as well as in her decision to attend the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill this fall.

“APL staff members gave me a lot of advice when it was time to make a decision about college,” Arun said. “I now have a lot more clarity about what I want to do and where I want to go professionally.”

Throughout college, Arun plans to continue expanding “Girls in STEM” by beginning a chapter at UNC-Chapel Hill and maybe even reaching an international audience. Looking ahead, Arun also hopes to maintain a relationship with APL. Her sights are set on organizing a STEM night to expose students to APL’s current research projects. She envisions poster sessions, lightning talks and — most importantly — engaging interaction between APL’s industry experts and curious students.

“I truly believe that APL can be a source of inspiration to students interested in STEM with its revolutionary research, dedicated scientists and state-of-the-art laboratories,” Arun said. “I hope to continue leveraging APL as a resource to make a difference in young women’s lives.”