A high school mentorship program played a big part in helping Eugenia Duodu find success in the sciences. Now the award-winning chemist and chief executive officer with Visions of Science Network for Learning pays it forward, ensuring that other young people from marginalized communities can see themselves as future scientists, too.
The U of T Mississauga alumna grew up in Etobicoke where she lived in social housing as the only child of a single mother. Watching Bill Nye the Science Guy on television sparked her childhood love of science but, as Duodu recalls in an interview with the Toronto Star, she didn’t see anyone like her wearing a lab coat. In high school, Duodou attended a summer mentorship program at U of T for students of Indigenous and African ancestry where she had the opportunity to shadow scientists and doctors. Suddenly, Duodu saw a different future for herself.
She applied to UTM, earning a B.Sc. (2010) and then a PhD (2015) in medicinal chemistry. During her studies, she volunteered with Visions of Science, a charitable program delivering free STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—programs to marginalized youth in low-income communities across the greater Toronto area. “I wanted to engage with an organization that connected STEM and the community,” says Duodo, who volunteered as facilitator leading hands-on science workshops. By 2015, she was leading the growing organization as its new chief executive officer.
“Youth in low-income communities face barriers to programming, especially in STEM,” Duodu says. “The barriers are structural, but also social and sometimes psychological.” As a result, students from low-income communities are underrepresented in STEM fields and research. It’s is a familiar and personal topic for many of the staff and volunteers with Visions of Science. “We also come from those neighbourhoods and understand, first-hand, what those barriers are,” Duodu says. “We are trying to bridge the inequities that exist by offering programming in an accessible way.”
Under Duodu’s leadership, Visions of Science has grown from six communities to serve over 500 students in 29 communities across the Greater Toronto Area. Its flagship Community STEM Club programs offer year-round weekly workshops, field trips and science days at post-secondary institutions to students in grades three to eight. In 2019, the organization added new STEM-themed summer day camps in three communities, including Peel Region where young campers conducted lab experiments with the Amgen Biotech Experience; and collected water samples from nearby Erindale Park with the EcoSpark. “The experience lets students take the knowledge they learned in the program to implement it in real-life situations,” says Hamna Awan, manager of communications and marketing with Visions of Science. “The data they collected went into a real database that will be used by scientists.”
In 2017, Visions of Science created the STEM Community Leaders program for high school students. It offers leadership skill development programs and experiential learning with a particular focus on career and education paths in STEM, including a three-day retreat at UTM where participants live in residence and attend STEM workshops led by UTM instructors. “The experience shows high school-age youth what life at UTM looks like, and helps them envision themselves at post-secondary students,” says Awan. “They take part in hands-on workshops facilitated by UTM staff and faculty, and get to see what science looks like at the post-secondary level. They will be graduating soon; we’re excited to see where they take their learning.”
“Our programs are supported by a network of partnerships, as well as mentorship from volunteers and staff. All of those components work together to provide meaningful engagement and programming,” Duodu says. Volunteering is the backbone of the program, drawing on a pool of about 100 volunteer facilitators. Half are U of T students, with about 25 from the UTM campus. As new programs are added, the Visions of Science leadership team is growing, too. The current leadership of the organization is also comprised of former volunteers, like Awan (BA 2017) who first got involved during her undergraduate studies. “We get to reach out to students while they are students at the campus, engage them in our programming and then ultimately seek to grow them and engage them in larger ways in the organization,” Awan says.
Duodu continues to hold close ties with her alma mater, returning often as a featured guest speaker and to host Visions of Science events on campus. “I hope that my story will open doors for other people to decide for themselves where they want to be.”