In 2013, high school senior Alexa Dantzler was brimming with excitement to be a finalist in the Intel Student Talent Search and to have the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama. But when she looked around the room at her fellow finalists, she noticed something that dimmed her joy a bit.
“It hit me that I was the only student from a minority background represented in the competition,” says Dantzler, whose background is African-American, Slovak and Korean.
Right then and there, she resolved to do something about it.
Now a senior at Emory majoring in biology and African studies, Dantzler founded Students Obtaining Atlanta Research (SOAR) her first year at Emory to encourage female students of color from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods to become STEM researchers.
SOAR works with students at Atlanta public high schools to support their individual research projects and connect them with STEM researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech for mentorship and research opportunities.
Dantzler's goal is to help other minority students look around the room and see others who help them feel connected to science and research.
Solving a chemical mystery
Her first year in high school, Dantzler says she was trying to settle on a science fair project. She knew there was a chemical used in dry cleaning, called perchloroethylene or perc, and that it had been linked to cancer among dry-cleaning workers.
She wondered whether the chemical’s residue was also making its way home with dry cleaning customers.
“I started emailing different professors in the area and asking about methods to detect the chemical,” Dantzler says.
It was a bold move and Paul D. Roepe, professor of chemistry at Georgetown University, answered her email. A research partnership was born.
Two graduate students in Roepe’s lab helped Dantzler with her experiment. She found that perc was indeed remaining in dry cleaned clothing and the results were published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. The finding also received a good bit of national media attention, won many science fairs and took her all the way to the finals of the Intel Student Talent Search.
“It was huge deal, and I was still in high school. Once it was published, all the media started to come out,” Dantzler says.
Dantzler says the project taught her a valuable lesson — connections with university researchers and labs open opportunities for high school students hoping to do high-level research (the kind that wins science fairs).
When Dantzler, a Robert W. Woodruff Scholar, started as a first-year student at Emory, she resolved right away to help other minority high school students reach the top levels of science research.
She volunteered with the Emory Student Educational Experience Development program (SEED), which helps under-served K-12 students attend college by creating first-hand experience, establishing research opportunities and one-on-one mentorship.
Soon after joining SEED, Dantzler was presenting to a group of students at Maynard H. Jackson High School when she says she decided to gauge their interest in research.
“I asked ‘Would anyone like to get involved in university-level research?’” she says. “Lots of kids raised their hands and said ‘I’ve always wanted to get involved, I just didn’t know how.’”
“These are the students I wanted to address. Some of them don’t have science fairs or the opportunity to study in a lab,” Dantzler adds.
Barbara Coble, SEED program director of Graduation Generation in the Office of University-Community Partnerships, says she was impressed by how Dantzler saw a need and immediately began work on a way to address it.
“She wanted to give students a methodology to connect with university professors. She wanted to take her SEED experience a step further,” Coble says.
Dantzler worked with Coble to establish a new program within SEED called SOAR, aimed squarely at mentoring female minority students interested in lab research and national science fairs.
She selected two students at Maynard H. Jackson High School and established regular meetings to work with them on presentation skills, networking and tailoring their personal research projects for national science fair competitions. She also connected the students with STEM faculty at Emory who could help them elevate the quality of their research.
How did she do it? She emailed the professors and asked.
“It’s amazing. I really do rely on the willingness of the professors to jump forward and realize how important this is,” Dantzler says.
Her first two SOAR students did regular research (weekly during the school year and daily during the summer) in two biology labs before graduating from high school and going on to college.
“What they learned in the lab will be a valuable asset to their careers and education. I’m so proud of them," Dantzler says.
The Society for Science & the Public in Washington, D.C., liked Dantzler’s progress with SOAR and chose the project for its Advocate Grant Program last year.
The grant has allowed Dantzler to explore expanding the program to four students per year. She’s also placed a SOAR student in a Georgia Tech lab and is working to add Georgia State University as well.
Victoria Lamar, a junior at Westlake High School in Atlanta, joined the SOAR program last year and started her research at Emory in September in the lab of Meleah Hickman, assistant professor of biology. Lamar conducts research in the lab twice weekly and will switch to daily research in the lab this summer.
“I had no idea others were doing research like this. It helps me feel like I’m not the only one,” Lamar says.
Dantzler will graduate in May and plans to take a gap year working with one of several global health research programs she’s applied to. She wants to go to medical school and become a physician and work in underserved inner-city areas.
Dantzler has tapped a fellow Emory student, first-year Jasmine Walker, to oversee the SOAR program after she graduates.
“She was really involved in STEM initiatives with minority women in high school and is the perfect person to take over this program for the next three years,” Dantzler says.
Mentorship programs like SOAR are vital to helping more minority high school students interested in science stick with it and become researchers, according to Dantlzer.
“No matter what your background you should still have the opportunity to have a career in science," she says. "One student can guide others and help them along the way.”