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Meet the new face of STEM: Shefali Mehta

Meet a woman who received a microscope as a gift when she was eight years old, and was thrilled by it. A woman who took the SAT exam when she was in seventh grade, so she could qualify for a teen algebra camp at Johns Hopkins University (“Best summer camp ever,” she insists). A woman who is often, she says, “the only brown person and the only female in the room--and I’ve been in some really, really big rooms.” She says that science and math changed her life for the better, and she’s reached the position she’s in now “because of the support I had to pursue this as a career option when I was a kid, and throughout my life.”

Shefali Mehta may very well embody the new face of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) professionals, and that’s just fine with her. She’s a first-generation U.S.-born child of scientist parents who immigrated from India. She is so passionate about sharing her subject with a younger generation that she founded a nonprofit organization, Teaching SMART (Science, Math and Research Technology). She started the program during her postgraduate stint at the University of Minnesota, where she was finishing a Ph.D. in agricultural and applied economics.

The organization, which encourages elementary-age kids to develop a lifelong love of math and science, is founded on the principle that engaging children--the younger the better--is the key to regaining our national footing in science and technology leadership.

Baking Soda Volcanoes and the Digital Divide

“There is nothing more exciting than watching kids’ faces light up when you’re talking about math and science. They really want to learn, and they just need to be given a chance,” Mehta, age 33, says. She was so passionate about the new venture that she convinced two cousins to contribute $100 each to her efforts, and paid for everything else herself. To her amazement, fellow STEM students at the University responded enthusiastically to her pleas for volunteers. “I just kept telling people, “Everyone has at least an hour to give, so why not give it to these kids?”

With a cadre of volunteers in place, she started weekly Saturday tutoring sessions at the Urban League Elementary School  in north Minneapolis. As someone who used to enter Science Fairs at what she calls “the competitive level,” she was able to dig back in her old experiment files to find some sure-fire winners, starting with that never-fail kid favorite, the baking soda volcano. From there, volunteers worked on issues that often confront kids who live on the other side of the Digital Divide, such as how to research science topics, cite sources, and compile information into papers and presentations. (“They love presenting to each other in PowerPoint,” she says.)

Mehta also arranged a partnership with the Bell Museum of Natural History, which hosted a tour and scavenger hunt for the group.

The Four-Year Fadeout

Museum support in place, volunteers lined up -- the newly founded organization was doing well, and Mehta was receiving recognition, too, including the Mary A. McEvoy Award for Public Engagement and Leadership, which recognizes a single outstanding honoree from more than 12,000 University of Minnesota graduate students, as well as the President’s Student Leadership and Service Award.

Fade out on our heroine, receiving her awards, collecting her Ph.D. and heading off to start a gig at McKinsey & Company. Fade back in, four years later, as she leaves a job that had her traveling the globe, working brutal hours and generally living the life of a high-powered consultant. “I only planned on staying a year, and ended up being there for four,” she says.

After a short stint in Washington, D.C., she settled in Minnesota her then-fiancé, now husband, David, who is finishing a Ph.D. in agricultural economics research at the University of Minnesota. She landed a job at Syngenta, a global biotechnology and agricultural firm, and began to reconnect with school friends and academic colleagues.

She  was happy to discover that Teaching SMART was thriving and actively working in three schools -- Pratt Elementary School, Marcy Open School, and Heritage Academy of Science & Technology. And the Bell Museum connection was still holding too.

Kevin Williams, the museum’s Curator of Education, says he’s impressed by the attitude of the Teaching SMART volunteers he meets, especially given the pressures faced by many of today’s students. “The undergraduate and graduate students who do this volunteering have my complete respect and awe. Students today are under terrific pressure, and school tuition and living expenses are increasing every year. If I were their age, there is no way I would feel I could take on volunteering, in addition to all they do,” he says.

And although their aspirations are high, Teaching SMART is still a very lean organization. Last year, they worked with more than 200 students and spent a grand total of $1,000, including the cost of field trips to the Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota campus.

A Love Match, a Hurricane, and Hockey

For her part, Mehta has had a whirlwind year that included a move, a new job and getting married. Shefali and David’s October wedding took place near her hometown of Bethel, Connecticut, just hours before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. “We got married outside, and you can see the storm clouds in the photos. It was--dramatic,” she says. Still, her parents, who had their own marriage arranged 39 years ago by family members in India, were incredibly supportive that their daughter was making a “love match,” no matter how catastrophic the weather predictions were.

The newlyweds, who live in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, are hoping to settle into the groove of staying in one place, together. Mehta wants to take up the off-duty passions that fell by the wayside during her McKinsey years. She describes herself as “a hot pepper enthusiast,” even growing several varieties at home, but she has learned to provide advance warning to her Minnesota-native husband when she puts an exotic hot sauce in a recipe.

She also loves independent music. One of the 13 jobs she’s held was as a press intern for the Matador record label in New York, where she was able to meet her idol, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. “I just stood there, staring blankly,” she reports dejectedly. Now, she hopes that a less-hectic work travel schedule will allow her to buy tickets in advance for concerts around town.

And she’s looking forward to the return of a complete, and satisfying, ice hockey season. The rabid fan counts a hockey stick signed by the Wild team as a prized possession. Ice hockey, really? “My dad was a huge fan back home in Connecticut,” she explains, “and he and I really bonded when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994.”

Advisory Board Plans

Finally, she’s planning to re-involve herself with the Teaching SMART organization. The group is currently recruiting for an advisory board of STEM professionals and others who are passionate about supporting STEM in our community, and Mehta is encouraging colleagues to step up and volunteer.

“The organization is unique in that it brings together undergraduate and graduate students, which is rare at the U. What would really help now is for some people to step forward to guide them in leadership skills and help bring greater visibility to the organization.” She is hoping to find the kind of people who are eager to help Teaching SMART achieve what, in corporate-world buzz-speak, is currently being called “a step change.”

“The solution to so many of society’s most pressing issues--improving the economy, increasing innovation--starts with giving kids the chance to learn about math and science. It just all really starts there,” Mehta says. “People want to help, but they need to be shown what needs to be done, and then be given a chance to do it. If you’ve grown up in STEM and are ready to give back, this organization is a really great place to make a difference,” she concludes.

Julie Kendrick's last article for The Line was an account of the Minnesota Urban Debate League, in our March 13, 2013 issue.

Portraits of Shefali Mehta by Bill Kelley: other images courtesy Teaching SMART
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