Founder Nora Sun works on Talaria events. (Photo courtesy of Nora Sun)

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Talaria: How a student-driven research initiative is fighting inequities in the STEM field

Growing at an accelerated rate, Talaria is priming a new generation of underrepresented students to delve into the nuances of STEM, tackling the inequities faced by female and gender-queer students.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/sanyatinaikar/" target="_self">Sanya Tinaikar</a>

Sanya Tinaikar

December 7, 2022
As a STEM-driven middle schooler, Nora Sun was captivated by the complex and challenging problems offered by her school’s math team — a club where she was the only girl. After a season of placing last in the competitions, she dropped out.

Unbeknownst to her, the other male team members practiced with special competitive math classes and workbooks together, each encouraging and collaborating as a group outside the school walls. This formative experience led to her creating Talaria, a free summer STEM research mentorship program for female and genderqueer high school students. 

Talaria is tackling the inequities females and LGBTQ+ members face by exposing underprivileged teens to scientific research and helping them build self-confidence through mentored research projects.

Tenure-track faculty are 2x as likely to have PhD-holding parents who taught them the ropes of academia,” Sun said. “This phenomenon has resulted in a lack of diversity in academic research, particularly science research. This is problematic not only based on equity but also because diverse research teams develop solutions faster.” 

During the one-month summer program, Talaria mentees complete a research project under the mentorship of acclaimed professionals, many of which are educated at well-established universities such as MIT, Yale, NASA, NIH, University of Toronto, and the University of Edinburgh, among others. In the end, they publish their research and present it at a conference.

Starting the program was a daunting experience in itself. At first, Sun was concerned that her efforts would be disregarded as a 14-year-old girl.

“However, as a mentor of mine likes to tell me, age is just a number,” Sun said. “As long as Talaria is well-organized, and our communication is professional, our partners do not care that teen volunteers primarily run Talaria.”

Emily Chang, leader of the LA Chapter, said running Talaria has, in fact, improved her leadership skills.

I was never the best planner of events, but as a primary officer in Talaria, I had to plan numerous events for the program to be a positive experience overall,” Chang said. “Because of this experience, I could plan events more punctually and efficiently.” 

The summer program encompasses a range of activities aside from rigorous scientific research: academic lectures from graduate students and myriad social activities that allow mentees to form an intellectual community.

This exchange of ideas with peers of similar identities amplifies interest in science and fosters a greater sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy amongst the mentees.

“It brings me great joy to be among other groups of like-minded individuals who are interested in being the next innovators and creators,” said Athena Kirk, an LA mentee, in 2021. “Not only was it enlightening to present and showcase my work alongside very bright individuals, but it was equally as enlightening to see their work and discoveries as well.” 

And the one-on-one mentorship provided is another addition to the intellectual stimulus guaranteed in the program. Graciela Bachu, a student at CalTech and an LA mentee from 2021, recounts how her mentorship has truly been beneficial as a college student.

“[My mentor] taught me how to research a topic–where to find the most reputable papers on a subject–and how to write scientifically,” Bachu said. “But she also prepared me for my academic career, encouraging me to work at a sustainable pace and making me aware of useful tools, like LaTeX typesetting, that I would later learn to use through Caltech.” 

Mentors are a crucial facet of mentees’ STEM-related careers, each being a key witness and tool to the individual mentee’s academic growth.

In the program’s early days, we start with a discussion on a topic and go through some of the work people are doing in that area, look at the actual implementation,” said Prafull Purohit, a mentor and a student at Cornell University.  “In the program’s second half, we try to develop an alternative, improved design or write a review about their learning experience and what can be done to further the research given more time and resources.” 

Mentor Siyu He, a student at Columbia University, is passionate about teaching and motivating her students’ self-learning skills from huge online resources, not just learning typical content. And many mentees have continued to pursue careers in STEM, with Talaria providing a foundation going forward for more advanced opportunities.

“Almost all of them got interested in studying STEM in college, and one of the mentees is already studying biotechnology in an Ivy League school,” He said.

Talaria is as much a learning experience for the mentors as it is for the mentees. While mentees are sharpening their research know-how, mentors are simultaneously sharpening their teaching and expanding their perspectives in ways they never thought of.

It has given me opportunities to learn about appreciating the difficulties some of the underrepresented high school students face,” Purohit said. “I am trying to learn from my mentees how to stay enthusiastic and to always be ready to learn new things and gain new experiences.”

As a female researcher, He wants to introduce her research and inspire brilliant young students.

I also had no chance to participate in cutting-edge research when I was in high school,” she said. “Thus, I hope to help those who face the same situation as I did. I also learned from my mentees since they are smart and creative, inspiring me in a way that I didn’t realize.” 

Growing at an accelerated rate, Talaria is priming a new generation of underrepresented students to delve into the nuances of STEM, tackling the inequities faced by female and gender-queer students.

The initiative is currently finalizing partnerships with universities to even provide campus housing as mentees study at university labs.

If there is anything that Sun would want girls and members of the LGBTQ+ community to take away from the program, it is “to dispel any preconceptions of science research as an impossible sport reserved exclusively for white male professionals in Silicon Valley,” she said. “Mastering the concepts within a field of science and playing around with these ideas in the form of research can be a beautiful and exciting pastime for anyone.”

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