“STEM is all about solving problems,” said Karrin Felton, program manager of the Department of Defense (DoD) Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship-for-Service Program, to a virtual audience of aspiring biotechnologists. “STEM brings people together from disparate backgrounds who have different ideas. This opposition is how we work things out.”
The Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) was launched in 2019 to raise awareness about the continuum of STEM education and workforce opportunities that are available to students of all ages. DSEC partner programs have proven effective in providing meaningful, hands-on STEM learning opportunities to students, particularly those from military-connected communities and groups underrepresented in STEM education and careers. One of the forward-thinking aspects of DSEC is showcasing the many different pathways STEM professionals, including scientists and engineers, have taken to build their own civilian careers within DoD.
SMART Program Manager Karrin Felton’s story is a perfect example. During a lively virtual seminar as part of the Emerging Leaders in Biotech Series for high school and college students organized by Learning Undefeated, a DSEC Innovation Bloc partner, Felton was candid about the challenges she faced during the years of education required before joining Corning, Merck and Eli Lilly as a chemist. When faced with roadblocks, “I had to tell myself the truth: you can’t do a STEM journey alone … It was time to humble myself and ask for some help.” She resolved to dig in, stop telling herself that she couldn’t learn a subject that was proving more challenging than any before, and shift her own expectations regarding how long something should take to learn.
After 11 years as an engineering manager, a civilian role working at a Marine Corps facility, Felton joined the SMART Program where she is committed to inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals to continue to excel and build on the groundbreaking inventions that truly change lives—cell phones, global positioning systems, and touchscreens are but three examples of DoD-discovered technologies that have long become an integral part of modern living.
Felton shared that the DoD is making space for women, including women of color, in biotech careers and offered the following advice for all STEM students:
- Speak truth. Don’t say “I can’t.”
- Accept that you do have the ability to learn.
- Figure out what you need to succeed. Put pride away and ask for help.
- Understand that it takes a community. Do not self-reject. Do not take yourself out of a situation.
During her period of self-reflection and seeking help, Felton realized she needed more study time and to surround herself with others who shared her goals. She says that the relationships she formed during these years proved a key positive factor in her professional development. Felton also says that all the points above help build resilience for a career that will definitely be exciting—and challenging.
Learning Undefeated’s Emerging Leaders in Biotechnology program was created to share biotechnology information with young women and inspire them to consider high-demand DoD STEM careers in biotech. During the 10-session series, which was held online and in person in biotechnology laboratories, students were introduced to a variety of DoD STEM professionals and taught professional techniques using actual lab equipment. The program also included instruction in building career readiness and networking skills.
In closing, SMART Program Manager Felton encouraged students to follow their curiosity and explore more of the many facets of STEM. “STEM is a large space,” she said. “Hands-on knowledge is key. Use discovery to explore other areas during your educational journey.”
More information is available at the following links: https://www.learningundefeated.org/nurturing-emerging-leaders-in-biotechnology-dod-stem-careers and https://vimeo.com/592891391
More information about the SMART Scholarship-for-Service Program can be found at www.smartscholarship.org.
View Karrin Felton’s DoD Spotlight Series interview.