By Abby Weingarten
Melissa Simmons wants to change the public’s perception of what a scientist looks like.
And, as the 2020 New College graduate begins her career as a high school teacher this fall, she will be doing just that.
“When a lot of people think of scientists, they have this image in their mind of some white guy in a lab coat with goggles on,” said Simmons, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry/biology in May. “Representation is so important. The more women (and also black women) get into STEM fields, the more space we will take up.”
Simmons will claim her own space in the classroom at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs in August. She was officially offered the job with Pinellas County Schools (PCS) on May 15, the day of New College’s commencement.
Back in February, while she was finishing her undergraduate thesis, Simmons took and passed the Florida Teaching Certification Examination (FTCE) and the Chemistry 6-12 test. So, when New College’s Center for Career Engagement and Opportunity (CEO) hosted a STEM networking event later that month, Simmons made instant connections with employers.
“I had been thinking about what I wanted to do after I graduated from New College, so I worked with coaches at the CEO who showed me the need for STEM teachers in public schools,” said Simmons, who is originally from Trenton, N.J. “They walked me through the process of getting my teaching certification and gave me resume help before the STEM event. Then PCS gave me a contract, which gave me peace of mind that I’d have a job once I graduated.”
That peace of mind was especially comforting in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Simmons was juggling multiple challenges that came along with the remote learning period. It was Simmons’ thesis sponsor, Biochemistry Professor Katherine Walstrom, Ph.D., who helped Simmons complete her thesis on time.
“Dr. Walstrom is amazing,” Simmons said. “She was my adviser at New College for four years, and I definitely would not be able to do what I’ve done without her.”
Simmons did quite a bit—on and off campus—while she was studying at New College. She studied abroad in Ireland at Dublin City University through the Council on International Exchange (CIEE) program. She was a recipient of the Isermann Medal in 2016 (an award given to three first-year students annually to do laboratory research). She wrote a thesis entitled The Effect of Oxygen Free Radicals on the Rate and Folding of Malate Dehydrogenase (in which she analyzed experimental data to formulate a deeper awareness of the possible damaging effects of free radicals in mammalian cells). And she was an advanced math tutor at Mathnasium of Bradenton, where she taught children, teens and college students.
The latter experience built on Simmons’ drive to make a difference in the lives of young people.
“I think maybe the biggest thing I want to do with science is make it more accessible to people. A lot of people hear the word ‘science’ and get scared that they won’t be able to understand it. But, for the most part, science isn’t that complicated,” Simmons said. “The job of scientists is to spread information in a way that’s understandable—to make it engaging. There’s a way to make it fun and interesting; you just have to have more teachers who are willing to do that.”
Walstrom did that for Simmons. In turn, Simmons hopes to do the same for students who will soon look up to her, especially young women.
“I think it’s hard for women to break into science and be respected, and a lot of women (like myself) kind of get this Imposter Syndrome,” Simmons said. “STEM is a male-dominated field and I think that deters a lot of women, because nobody wants to go into a field where they’re going to not be listened to or respected. The more women we get in STEM, it will just become normal for women to become scientists or mathematicians or engineers.”
Connecting with other female STEM majors, including those of color at New College, also helped Simmons feel supported during her undergraduate years. She and her friends would work in the lab together, go to the Black Student Union and Black History Month events together, and talk through their encounters with racism and sexism on campus.
“We were all going through the same thing so we didn’t feel alone, and we could blow off some steam together and it helped,” said Simmons, whose background is Caribbean-American. “It’s nice to have friends tell you you’re smart and capable. I don’t think I would have survived without them, honestly.”
Simmons is now working through a whole new challenge, facing rising cases of COVID-19 in Florida as she prepares to begin the fall semester. But New College, she believes, has prepared her for the unknown.
“I have a love-hate relationship with New College. I had tough times but, I will say, the teachers there really care more than the average college professors do,” Simmons said. “They were really there for me. I leaned on my professors a lot. I would talk to Professor Walstrom about science and my Imposter Syndrome and she genuinely cared. That meant everything to me, and I want to be like that for my students.”