Innovative SF Program Opens Doors to Science Careers for Young Girls of Color

“Beyonce isn’t going to cure cancer,” remarked high school student Xiisa Bullock at the closing award ceremony of the NexGeneGirls Summer Internship Academy in August. Xiisa had just spent the summer helping to lead and deliver after-school science modules to 12-14 young girls from the Bay View Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley and Sunnydale neighborhoods every week with five of her peers.

Supervisor Malia Cohen said that Marlena is creating a program an opportunity to change people’s lives and redefining what the scientist world looks like.

“I think it’s important that girls that look like me have something to aspire to other than the narrow role models we see on music videos,” stated Bullock.  “This program allowed me to share my love of science with young girls of color and hopefully opened up their sense of possibility of what they could do with their lives.”

Several distinguished women were on hand to congratulate the young females of the Summer Internship Academy, including California Endowment President & COO Kathlyn Mead, San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, and BayBio CEO & President Gail Maderis.

Although women fill close to half of all the jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25% of all STEM-related jobs.  Women of color hold just 3% of those jobs.  NexGeneGirls was founded in 2011 to inspire and empower girls from under-represented communities to pursue STEM-related careers by engaging in science and technology activities with other female role models. The program delivers long-term mentoring and after-school enrichment in STEM learning for girls of color, grades 3-8, in San Francisco’s economically-distressed neighborhoods to the south.

The NexGeneGirls Summer Internship Academy consists of eight weeks of hands-on experiments and real-world applications of STEM principles delivered through project-based lessons taught by female professionals from STEM fields.

“As you look at our young girls learning how to do sample collection or how to engineer or build a PCR machine, you’ll see that they are capable of being engineers or great scientists. They’re getting the opportunity to use technology that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to” said NexGeneGirls Founder, Marlena Jackson.

To instill leadership skills and self-confidence in older females, six high school students were given paid internships over an 8-week period for 20 hours per week.  Serving as junior staff, interns were responsible for helping to set up and lead scientific experiments, performing demonstrations and collaborating with staff to make NexGeneGirls relevant and exciting for the program’s younger females. The program also emphasizes the importance of higher education and encourages interns to plan long-term academic and career goals.

“I have so many friends who had so much potential, but some got pregnant and dropped out of school, some got engaged, some are dead,” said Bullock. “If they’d had an opportunity like this, I bet they’d have scholarships and be somewhere right now.”

Run in partnership with the Willie Mays Boys and Girls Club and the BayBio Institute, NexGeneGirls seeks to break stereotypes and change perceptions in order to create a culture of opportunity for the next generation of female leaders.

“Before the NexGeneGirls program, I thought that all scientists wore white lab coats and were predominantly white males,” stated Mykel Sisk, NexGeneGirls intern. “But now I know that a scientist can look just like me in a jean jacket.  I really want to have a career in science.  My mind is really set on it now.”

Jackson’s vision for NexGeneGirls was inspired by her experience as a nontraditional science student growing up in the Bay View Hunters Point community.  In addition to witnessing the cancer and chronic asthma that plagued her community, Marlena also personally understood the particular needs and challenges faced by young girls of color. She learned firsthand the importance of outreach to underserved communities when she was recruited into City College of San Francisco’s Bridge to Biotech Program.  It was there that she connected with women industry professionals who inspired and supported her, enabling her to realize her dream of conducting scientific research at one of the world’s leading biotech organizations where she is currently employed.

Not long after starting at Genentech, Marlena decided to return to her community and reach out to young girls like her. She founded NexGeneGirls in order to build a community of supportive relationships where girls at different stages in their development can inspire and motivate one another, thus helping to increase the number and diversity of underrepresented young women pursuing STEM-related careers.

“The real reason for me wanting to create NexGeneGirls was to give back to my community,” stated Jackson.  “How can I personally make my community – not just myself – better through a career in science? How can I really make the lives of the kids that live in my community better?  I believe that through science we can do that.”