How One Woman Inspired Seven Awards in Science

By GAYLE JO CARTER January 15th, 2019

While the students of the inspiring new documentary Science Fair  — streaming now on Amazon Prime Video — might take home the actual prizes,  it’s one of their fearless leaders who impressed us with this amazing feat: Dr. Serena McCalla, Jericho High School [Jericho, New York] science research coordinator, led her students to win seven Grand Awards — more than any other school in the world at what’s been called the “Olympics of Science Fairs”  The International Science and Engineering Fair [ISEF] where 1,700 students from nearly 80 countries compete. In the midst of the documentary’s roll out, we caught up with Dr. McCalla who shared with Aspire her secrets of success, how she faces adversity and why even with the dark clouds over “facts” these days, she’s hopeful about the future.

Q. What are your top 3 success tips? 

[One] I am very honest with my students. A lot of times adults are afraid to tell kids what they don’t know.  So they are sometimes dishonest, not by lying but by not telling them the complete truth. I’m very honest in my critiques with the work they give me. I don’t think everyone deserves an award. If they didn’t earn it, they don’t get it. [Two] I have a phenomenal respect for my students and I know they respect me.  [Three] I am relentless in regard to their pursuit of excellence. I don’t stop until I see that they are truly giving their best.  That might mean tears. When they’re first in the midst of it, it’s difficult.  Once you train them to reach for the stars that’s all they see. That’s when my programme works. I have them for three years so I’m constantly reinforcing everything that I taught them. It works.”

Q. What were you like as a kid?

“I’ve always loved science. Since I was 3, I used to ask my dad ‘Why is the sky blue? Why are these plants growing here versus over there?’ I always remember he used to say to me, ‘You ask so many questions.’ And it was almost like a joke because he wouldn’t answer me anymore. He would just basically say, ‘It’s time to go to the library.’ I didn’t grow up on  the internet. So it was ‘Let’s just go to the library and read some more, let’s figure it out.’ We’d go look up things. He would buy us the Encyclopedia Britannica. When computers did become more prevalent, it was “Okay, now I could go figure things out on my own.’ I never had exposure to science fair like these kids. I wish I did.”

Dr. Serena McCalla’s Top Trailblazing Tips
  • Be honest and don’t be afraid to tell others what they don’t know
  • Have a phenomenal respect for others
  • Be relentless in regard to the pursuit of excellence
  • Learn to become a forward-thinker
  • Become your own best advocate
  • Stand up and fight. Don’t ever give up
  • Make your own path
  • Try new things and take risks
  • Always look toward the future
  • Be a consummate learner

Photograph from The International Science and Engineering Fair kindly provided by National Geographic

Photograph of Dr Serena McCalla kindly provided by National Geographic

Q. Your belief and passion is so strong that in the documentary, you said “I’m gonna be proud when one of my kids wins a Nobel prize because they will!” – how do you sustain that belief?

“I truly mean it. Most of my students will  be very wealthy because they’re innovators and thinkers. This next generation is not going to be about who can use their hands. It’s going to be about who is most forward thinking. My students will be successful because they’ve learned to become more forward thinkers because of all the steps and trials they’ve gone through in their research. In addition, I think I’ll have a few Nobel Laureates. I believe it. I’ll continue to have more Rhodes Scholars, more Claredon Scholars down the road, some phenomenal physicians that know how to integrate technology with medicine to make medicine and environmental practices better than they are today.  I foresee a lot more girls accepting their roles as scientists. I don’t know if once they leave the high school setting — still to this day — they’ll be encouraged to pursue science. This is mind blowing to me. I hope that they continue to see themselves as scientists and not get discouraged by naysayers who don’t think that girls or women belong in the scientific arena.”

Q. Did you have anyone who tried to hold you back? 

“Oh yeah,  I was very alone in college. I was a young black female, younger than most of my classmates because I started school really early and my birthday is late. Double whammy. I didn’t get a lot of assistance. Most of my friends were not in science. Even to this day, most of my closest friends have no connection to science. I basically studied alone. I persevered alone. I knew that kids had access to the exams. I went to Binghamton for undergrad and their brothers and sisters had gone to Binghamton so they had access to all the exams and they wouldn’t share them with me. I even had one person ask me,  ‘Why are you in here?’ At the time I wanted to be a physician. People just treated me like I was different, like I was an enigma who shouldn’t be there. I just got to a point where I stopped listening. Even as a research teacher coming into this school district — because this is a school district that doesn’t have many individuals who look like me — it was hard having them accept me. ‘Who is this  black lady coming in here to tell these kids what to do in regards to science?’ It wasn’t easy. It was a difficult transition even in a liberal and forward thinking place as Jericho is. So no, I don’t think it was easy at all but there’s a point in your life where you have to be your own best advocate. I became my own best advocate. I didn’t listen to what other people had to say. I did what I felt was important to me.”

Q. Women who are direct, especially women of color who are direct can be perceived negatively, what do you have to say about that?

“I just recently started posting videos every day  on my Instagram because I felt like people don’t tell enough truths. I wish that some of the things I’m saying on my Instagram posts someone would would have said to me because I spent a lot of lonely and frustrating nights wondering why it was so hard. The reality is I had to train myself every time I failed or made a mistake not to give up on me. I had to train myself to always be the best at everything.  If someone would have told me a long time ago those are the keys to being successful maybe I wouldn’t have felt so lonely while I was figuring those things out. So literally on my Instagram I post these stories. I do it for the kids who don’t have anybody telling them. That’s part of who I hope to be, to be an advocate, be a role model for those kids who don’t know that they have support they have it. To let them know, too, they’re not the only ones who struggle, or will continue to struggle.  We are are struggling, we will continue to struggle until adults and others recognize that we can do better we should be doing better.”

Q. You have dedicated your life to the advancement of science. How do we encourage more kids especially girls to fall in love with science?

“Immerse them into it.  We don’t immerse them into science frequently enough. A lot of  science is taught by being talked to instead of actually letting them figure it out. We don’t let the kids fail, that’s a really limiting factor that we don’t train them to fail because if they do fail they feel ‘I should just give up.’ No. They have to realize that  the best and the brightest and the most successful people have failed repeatedly before they got that one thing that put them over the top. We have to learn it’s okay to fail and to trust the process of failing. Once we recognize that mistakes happen and that’s not going to be the end of the world, look how much we grow. We learn from failing. We learn what not to do, what the next thing is to do. There are so many great things going right now, but I feel like there just aren’t enough people hearing them. I think the girls have access to so much because there are so many women that want to support them, but honestly I don’t know if our voices are loud enough or if enough people are saying, ‘Ok maybe we should listen and trust this women.’ I’m thinking of Instagram – because my kids live on social media – so I definitely try to relate to that, where they spend most of their time and I look at the Instagram posts of women versus men and the number of likes men get for just ridiculous things that they post versus the number of likes women get for some really in-depth, intellectual, wonderful things. It’s such disparity. I really think it’s just gender based. I sometimes wonder if I made the face of my company male, how much better I would be doing and that’s sad that I even have to think that. But it’s the truth. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Maybe I should make the face of my company not me and see how that changes its growth, it’s trajectory.”

Q. Are you discouraged right now that science and facts are being dismissed by the people running America? Where are we going?

“Honestly I  think it’s going to shift. It’s going to take a lot of people who are boisterous in how they deliver their message to stand up and say, ‘Ok, listen we’re about to really get to a point of no return and if we don’t act as collective there will be no place for your children’s children. We are going to destroy so many of our natural resources. Only the wealthy will survive and they will have serious limitations. We’re getting very close to a point that the most intelligent people are going to realize, ‘Ok you’re right, I have to stand up and fight so we at least save my children’s children. It’s disheartening but I don’t ever give up and I tell my kids this too. I don’t think we’re at a point of no return yet. I just think it’s my responsibility to keep educating the people behind me and make sure they are expecting better and fighting for better.”

Q. Do women bring a unique perspective to the science world, to STEM?

“We are nurturers and because we are nurturers we have a tendency to want to make sure everything and everyone is okay, which I don’t think is a bad thing. As a result of being nurturers, we’re always looking for the good of the collective gain which is great and because of that we’re better scientists. We’re not going to narrow our scope to just what affects us.  That’s going to help science grow and make sure everyone is supported. To be honest – I hate that I’m going to say this – but every time that the girls come back from college they tell me how discouraged they are with science, except for the physicians. It tells me that we still have a lot of work to do. I’ve had girls who are brilliant computer scientists and they go to Stony Brook or Stanford or wherever and they’re so discouraged by the men around them that they end up leaving the program.  That’s something we really have to tackle. We have to make our young men recognize [women in this industry] and I do that within my classroom. The kids always say to me, I’m always trying to be a feminist. What I was seeing in the class was that sometimes boys would over talk the girls if it was a math or physics problem. I was like , ‘No, you can’t just over talk the girls. They have opinions and they understand science just as well so we all have to listen just as well.’ That’s something that we as teachers and adults have to call out the boys on because they’re watching their fathers and the news and maybe are formulating some bad habits.”

Q. What’s a good day?

“A good day is when I just get a little bit of time to talk to them. When it’s not just about this assignment or this task, when it’s just about listening and learning from them. A good day is when they’re teaching me and I’m just seeing the light bulb go off. I love those days when they figure out something they didn’t know the answer to and they figured it out on their own with a little bit of guidance. That’s a great day.”

Q. Tell me about the bad days. How do you keep going?

“A bad day is when I see my students give up on themselves. A bad day is when they feel like there is no solution to a problem and they feel like should just give up because maybe another person was successful when they were not. That they allow other people’s successes and/or failures to dictate their successes or failures. That’s why today I’m talking about advocacy because I tell them, ‘You can’t look at other people to dictate your success. You have to make your own path. You have to decide for yourself what your breaking points are and what your limits are.’  But they don’t do that, they look at their peers and they’re always comparing themselves. Again with social media, everybody looks a certain way on social media but that’s not reality and we have to keep talking to them about. They don’t realize that social media is not the truth. I mean somebody did 15 takes before they posted whatever it is they posted. So, you can’t use that as your barometer for what the truth is and what you’re capable of. You don’t get do-overs the way they’re doing do-overs. That’s their career, that’s their job, a lot of the people the kids are watching on social media. Of course, they spend hours and hours doing it. You spend hours and hours doing your job and you’ll be ok.”

Q. Do you have any fears in all this time you’ve struggled with acceptance? How do you deal with them?

“My fear is that sometimes I’m too assertive. That I expect too much.  Maybe my work ethic is not everybody’s so I can’t expect everybody to do [what I do] or be who I am. I hope that people don’t judge my directness as anger or as anything negative. I want to be honest and I respect honesty. I respect people who are straight-forwarded in their responses to me so I give that because that’s what I want. I don’t know if everyone is accepting of that. I know I have problems with men with that. They think I’m too direct. God forbid I’m not cowering down to the man that’s in the room with me. I can’t and I won’t because I’ve worked too hard to be who I am and who I’m training my kids to be. To back down just because a man thinks I should, that brings me fear because I lose out on opportunities. There’s an old boys club and if I’m not playing by their rules,  I may not get the same stipend. This is a true example. I know there are men who get paid for extra hours and they get paid a lot more than I do. It baffles me because I’m at work way longer than them. I’m at work now and if I go out in the parking lot right now at 5:14, I’m sure there’s maybe two cars out there besides my own and If I go out at 7:00…. I left last night at 8:30… and there were no cars in the lot but mine and I get paid a lower stipend. It baffles me.  Times have changed. The times where men used to make more money because they are taking care of a family and their wife was home. That doesn’t exist anymore. Now, I’m taking care of my household. I’m taking care of my mom’s household. I’m now carrying the burdens that men used to carry. My brother doesn’t pay for my mom’s home and that still hasn’t changed the outlook on men deserving or earning more. That’s a problem in our society. In education, they somewhat balance it because we have pay scales and steps that everybody’s on.  But in business it’s still like I said with stipends that still exists even in education.”

Q. In the documentary, your students talked about you as the most incredible teacher they have ever had and that you are their mother. What makes them feel that way? What makes an incredible teacher?

We love each other. I love them. I treat them the way I would treat my children. I expect you to do your best and if you fall I have you but I will not let you stay down. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you are successful. I will continue to  guide you in the best way I think you could go. The reason why they use that term [mother] and I love it and think it’s hilarious because I don’t have any kids is that I treat them the way I would treat my own children. I really do. I see them as off-shoots of me and I tell them your success and failure are also my success and failures even if no one knows that except for me. There’s a definite bond. We spend an inordinate amount of time together. I see my students nearly ten to fifteen hours a week versus most teachers who see their kids for four hour a week. We travel together because some of the competitions are out of state. I know their personal lives, their boyfriends, who they are dating, when they have troubles. I let them just be who they are. I’m not judging. I don’t judge who they’re dating and why. If I don’t think this is somebody that’s good for them, I will tell them. Then I tell them that’s your choice. You have to make your decision but I’m going to tell you how this person might not be good or may be harming you in some way. It all comes back to honesty and trust. They know I’m there for them. They know when they win, I don’t benefit. It doesn’t change my salary. I don’t get paid more. I still make less than some of the gym teachers here in Jericho, who also work as coaches. Their winning is not motivated for my gain. I just want them to be the best humans beings they can be.”

Q. The public education system globally is under-funded, and we could argue, failing. In your view, what needs to change, what could we do better?

“I was literally leaving teaching before I came to Jericho. That’s a story that many people don’t know anything about. I was done. It was so frustrating to work under these people who knew a lot less than me, coupled with the fact that I was working 3 jobs [due to low pay] because I wanted to buy my first home. I was juggling to work as an educator. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people will be lost to education because of that. We’re going to lose the best and brightest minds. They’ll go elsewhere because they’re going to make three or four times the salary if they go into another field. Even some of my students say they’d loved to be a professor but their parents talk them out of it because they know they’ll be poor. We need to ask some of the people who are not educators to stop making the rules of education. For example, we work so hard to to create these standardized exams. Now you have teachers teaching just to the test, so there is no thinking. They are given all this information to memorize. They don’t really understand concepts. When they go to college, they’re even more lost than they would have been if they didn’t have to study for that standardized exam.

I would love to see a decrease in standardized testing. I would love to see more open-ended classrooms where the students could bring something to the classroom. Maybe their entire year, one course could be any topic of your choice, you get to study for the year. There’s a template for what you have to do in order to complete this task but basically you would only study that for this entire course for the year and maybe this allows them the freedom to learn what they want to learn and see where that goes. I’m not saying we you can completely remove the basics: chemistry, physics, math, algebra, social studies, English. Those are important to have in the curriculum. We’re stifling them with rote facts that are on on Google that if we spend a little more time clarifying why these principles exist vs. just talking at the kids we would have much more intelligent students being bred and who are more prepared for college. One big thing would be to open up these classroom doors. Stop making these curricula that someone who is in finance, business and their goal is to sell more textbooks or standardized tests. Each test here in Jericho cost like $150.00 It’s a money-making business. We need to take that aspect out of the actual teaching. I don’t think that all testing is bad. There should be a benchmark of learning but the fact that most courses today are geared toward exams is really a bad way to teach.”

Q. Anything else you’d like to see in the future?

“We have to connect more technology. The reality of it is this is where the future is going. Everything is going to be designed around some form of technology so we might as well teach that way too. We still have people writing on the chalkboard.”

Q. You give so much of yourselves to your students, what do you do to unwind and relax? I don’t relax as often as I should, but I do treat myself to a massage at a spa once a month. I love a great Audiobook on Audible when I go for a drive. I read anything. My current audio book is Becoming by Michelle Obama. My last few books were Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game;  The Witch Elm, Rich People Problems, and Where the Crawdads Sing (all unabridged) My most guilty pleasure is travel. I have visited over 50 countries around the world and I look forward to new adventures whenever possible. I love to try new things and take risks.  I last went to acrobat and flying trapeze training with my girls to celebrate a birthday. I cliff dive in Jamaica — even though I can’t swim. In the summer I play golf.”

Q. When you are 100 years old, what will you want people to say about your life? 

“That I have supported students every step of the way. That I was always an advocate for student achievement, student innovation, student excellence. I was always looking towards the future. That I wasn’t stuck in the decade that I was trained in. That’s definitely a limitation.  The teachers are so used to doing stuff the way they are taught, that sometimes they close their mind to the possibilities of doing it differently. I’m a consummate learner. I hope that’s something people know about me as I continue to grow older: that I’m using this opportunity to learn.”

*Interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Write to Gayle Jo Carter

This interview was also inspired by the great work of Dr Ellis Crasnow and his team at STEM3 Academy in Los Angeles.

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