‘My long-term goals are to continue to make a difference in the lives of Long Island students.’
As a science teacher and research scientist in Brentwood Union Free School District, I’ve dedicated 20 years of my career to getting more people of color involved in the sciences, to be the voice of change and the ones moving the legislation at the state level and that people are listening to. I have a state-of-the-art research lab at the high school. They come in as 10th-graders who have never picked up any equipment and by their senior year, they’re out conducting real-world investigations.
“Since 2018, my students have been working with New York State Parks and Save the Sound to replant and restore the salt marsh in Sunken Meadow State Park. They’ve planted over 2,000 plants. This came about because while getting my masters at Stony Brook University, I worked in Madagascar for six months. It was the beginning of the rest of my life because there I saw an imminent need to help those who didn’t have the resources that we had in the U.S., both for teaching and the environment. I worked with kids in Madagascar to replant and reforest the rainforest. And 20 years later, I’m planting Spartina in a salt marsh on Long Island.
“One would say my life hasn’t changed much, but when I came back from that trip, I realized that it’s not just Madagascar that needs help. It’s right here in our own backyard. I did my student teaching in Brentwood and fell in love with the population; 57 different cultural nations represented in the student body. I took a job in Brentwood and started a research program as an afterschool initiative. That became a class and my life mission.
Here I am jumping into my research to get me out of a bad situation in my life, and that’s kind of how I see research for our students in Brentwood.
“In 2004, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27. What helped get me through that darkness was the science and getting my kids to answer and ask questions. From 2004 to 2006, we started pushing forward with the research program. We were always the “Bad News Bears” at the science competitions. We’d go to country clubs and compete against Roslyn, Syosset and Jericho. I was going to the Salvation Army to buy jackets for my kids so they looked like the rest. I called it the ‘Science Unfair’ because my students didn’t have the same skillset and background as everybody else.
“In 2007, I had a recurrence, and a bilateral mastectomy. I decided to finish my Ph.D. I was going through chemotherapy and in graduate school full-time and working full-time. I was having a hard time, so I just sunk myself into research. The experience was one of the most arduous of my life and the most life-changing for both me and the Brentwood program.
“In 2010, we started to win competitions. We had a recognition from the Siemens Competition, a first ever for Brentwood. In 2011, my student Samantha Garvey was doing research in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook. She was going to drop out because her parents were evicted. We raised money so she could stay with the program and in 2012, she was recognized as an Intel Semifinalist. She was invited to the White House and President Obama’s State of the Union Address. We were on “The Ellen Show” and “The Today Show.” It was all about how through science you can get out of a bad situation.
My true purpose is that regardless of zip code kids have the resources to do and go where they need to go. If that means trying to hold your ground and saying, ‘things need to change,’ then you need to be the voice of change.
“Here I am jumping into my research to get me out of a bad situation in my life, and that’s kind of how I see research for our students in Brentwood. For me it was a long, uphill battle. I get hit with cancer and wind up continuing to persevere. Things started to fall into place when the students were getting the recognition they deserved. Since 2010, we’ve had over 20 national winners and we’ve brought in over $20 million in college scholarships. The lab is the little gem of the district. We have kids from this program who have gone to Yale, Harvard and MIT.
“In a community like Brentwood, one of the hardest hit by COVID, you need to believe in science. Without science, I wouldn’t be standing here right now. My long-term goals are to continue to make a difference in the lives of students and focus specifically on the underrepresented community of Brentwood to showcase that with the right skills and the right people in place, we can make a difference in the lives of our youth. My true purpose is that regardless of zip code kids have the resources to do and go where they need to go. If that means trying to hold your ground and saying, ‘things need to change,’ then you need to be the voice of change.”
Interviewed by Liza Burby