I Plan to STEM the Tide

A lack of equal opportunities for low-income students won't prevent me from achieving my science dreams.

by Richi Barua

When I was four years old, I started keeping a stack of newspaper articles in a box beside the large window in the living room. These articles mostly were about the discovery of new planets, illustrations of alien life, or images of our solar system. (I began writing and reading when I was 3.)

I continued saving and reading these articles until I was nine, when I immigrated to the U.S., from Dhaka, Bangladesh, with my parents. One article that really grabbed my attention was about extraterrestrial life forms. I wondered: Do they exist? If so, where? What are their living conditions? What would happen if the universe itself did not exist? I often stared at my ceiling for hours just thinking about my existence.

Before we got our own apartment in New York, we lived with my aunt. I had a 13-year-old cousin who also loved science, and he and his friend would invent things. Once, I observed them create a torchlight out of an Altoids box. They also constructed a computer.

I was extremely interested, but I didn’t think I could pursue a career in the sciences, specifically computer science. I grew up in a conservative Bengali community. Even though my parents support me, a lot of my relatives and my parents’ friends do not see women as equal to men. One of my uncles once told me that women are slow and do not have the intellectual and physical capabilities of males. This misogyny is slowly declining in my culture, but I am still influenced by it.

Since I struggled with English, I visited the library frequently. Whenever I saw a book about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), I would pick it up. I also read books that empowered young girls. This encouraged me a little, but a part of me did not think I was capable because of my culture’s social conditioning.

But even if I had had more confidence, I needed a computer to really delve into STEM and buying one was not possible at that time. My parents struggled just to save an initial deposit for us to rent a small studio apartment.

Newton’s Law and Electromagnetic Waves

Fortunately, a few months before I started high school, I received my own computer and my first phone. I also started to watch a lot of videos about astronomy. When classes began, I was put into physics. (My school is an early college school that also starts in 6th grade. This allowed me the opportunity to take physics as a freshman.)

Words cannot describe how much I loved that class. I learned about Newton’s Law, electrons and protons, and electromagnetic waves. I loved learning about these phenomena because they explain how the things we use everyday like microwaves and TVs work. It was at this point that I realized I do not see myself doing anything else other than science.

I felt fortunate that physics and computer science courses were offered at my high school. I think other high schools in my district don’t offer those classes. Still, I often have to share textbooks and other publications with students. Also, the school printers are often out of paper and ink so sometimes we did not have materials for class, particularly science where we require a lot of worksheets for our lab work.

During my second semester of freshman year, my principal nominated me and a couple of other students for ChickTech, an organization that runs free workshops at the computer lab at Pace University to introduce girls to different STEM fields.

I was assigned to a web development group. This was the first time I coded. I used basic HTML and a bit of CSS to build a website about astronomy! It was quite simple and I loved it.

I continue to attend ChickTech’s workshops, including one where I had the opportunity to visit Columbia University Zuckerman Institute and recorded neuron signals from cockroaches. I also visited IP Soft, a software company specializing in Artificial Intelligence. I was introduced to Amelia, an Artificial Intelligence system they created.

What Is Life?

I began watching videos and reading articles about how astronomers code to retrieve and analyze data. In my sophomore year, I purchased a book called “Welcome to the Universe” by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott. It introduced me to the world of astrobiology, the idea of finding extraterrestrial life on other planets. Astrobiologists search outer space for radio signals and analyze how living organisms exist on Earth. To search for life elsewhere, these scientists work to answer the question “What is life?” and what elements life needs to survive. This also sparked my interest in biology.

A couple of months ago, I came across a CRISPR video on YouTube. A male researcher from New York University and the New York Genome Center was explaining CRISPR to five different people from different age groups. CRISPR is a gene modification tool that is being used to fight diseases such as cancer. Furthermore, a group of Stanford scientists are actually utilizing CRISPR CAS9 to fight COVID-19.

Then I started reading about the intersection of computer science and medicine, and came across an article in a science journal about computer science tools helping CRISPR.

I decided I was ready to study this in depth. I found an online course available from Harvard, but it cost $3,000. Although I recognized it was so expensive since it was Harvard, I was disappointed. My parents could never afford that. I live in a family of four; my parents’ income is divided to pay for rent, groceries, and bills. At times, bills are paid late, resulting in late fees and more painful spending.

I looked further into other online courses. Websites like edx and coursera provide free beginner courses but I couldn’t find anything free at a higher level in my areas of interest.

I thought there were likely kids whose parents could afford paid courses. And how that gave them an advantage over me.


No Computer, Less Confidence

I started to notice other low-income kids at school who were interested in STEM who didn’t think they could pursue it because they could not afford a computer or other technological devices, books, online courses, or fast, unlimited internet access.

One classmate of mine who was also into computer science immigrated to the United States when he was in 7th grade. He’s into creating video games. His family’s only internet access was via his mother’s phone. “There were some computer science extra credit assignments on Google Classroom that I couldn’t do because I needed a computer,” he told me.

One of my best friends loves criminology. She also has a growing interest in computer science after taking AP computer science last year. She and her sister have to share one computer, and both were enrolled in a computer science course at the same time. This made it difficult for both of them to complete assignments.

One day in math class, I asked her if she wanted to study to be a criminologist.

“Ha, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Are you crazy?”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Us poor students don’t get the same opportunities as rich students, and even when we are taught STEM classes, we are behind kids who go to better schools.”

I know I’m as smart as a person from a privileged family, but sometimes I still feel less than. It’s hard to be confident when you don’t have the same resources as other kids from richer families.

The Wealth Divide Barrier

I am applying to colleges in a couple of months. I have never felt my lack of privilege as much as I do at this moment.

The wealth divide between the rich and the poor feels like an actual barrier to me. On one side of this barrier, we have what we call a land of opportunities. This is the side where students are able to afford colleges, tutoring services, trips to colleges, and they are able to engage in expensive extracurricular activities that boost their college applications like these online courses I am dying to take. On the other side, you have people like me who can’t do any of these things.

It is a wall that restricts us from climbing up social ranks. It is a wall that breaks down dreams for so many people.

I am currently considering a field in computational biology, although that may change. However, I do want to pursue computer science along with biology or astronomy. There are some great schools with these programs. At the top, MIT, Harvard, and Tufts are schools with incredible physics, medicine, and engineering departments. In New York City, NYU is an amazing research institution for genome research. CUNY also has good biology programs.

It will be hard to compete with students from wealthier families to gain admission. Not only can they take expensive online courses, they attend well funded schools with college advisers. My junior and senior class of about 200 students has only one guidance counselor, who also fills in as a college advisor.

Admission to top STEM programs can be enhanced by research opportunities, where a high school student works with scientists at universities, often ones the student is interested in attending. They gain experience and connections with faculty scientists, which gives them an advantage over other applicants.

Many private institutions do offer a significant amount of financial aid, but programs like Columbia’s Summer High School Program for Engineers, for example, require an application fee of $50. I was all set to apply and found this to be a barrier. By the time I found out about the fee waiver, the deadline had passed.

Determined to Succeed

I am afraid of not being accepted to a college with a strong STEM program, or not receiving enough financial aid to make it possible, even if I am accepted. But, I am still willing to work hard for it and to seek help from others. I am currently working with Options, an organization that helps low income students attend college.

When I was in Bangladesh, my uncle often told me to stand up for myself, even if girls are not seen as powerful. His words stuck with me. Although I wish I had equal opportunities of a wealthy person, I also recognize that I do have as much potential as they do. As a first generation low-income student, I know that my accomplishments are deserved and mine alone, and not helped by any privilege. This also pushes me to dream big.

I learned about Newton's Law, electrons and protons, and electromagnetic waves. I realized I do not see myself doing anything other than science.
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