Two women from two different backgrounds – one from a rural town in Eurasian Georgia and the other from urban Barcelona – both shared something in common growing up: a lack of access to scientific research labs. Now thanks to the Amgen Scholars Program (ASP), both are breaking the mold to become role models for budding female scientists around the world.
Speaking to high school teachers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) via STEM Alliance webinars, Lela Okromelidze and Marta Andres Terre shared their journeys to becoming global scientists. Both ASP alumnae, Okromelidze is a now fifth-year medical student at Tbilisi State Medical University, and Andres Terre is a Ph.D. student at Stanford University. In their webinars, they discussed the importance of access to high-quality hands-on research experiences and having role models to guide their way.
Defying all odds
Okromelidze grew up in the small Georgian town of Akhaksikhe, attending a school that often had no electricity, water, or heat. It was a time of crisis in Georgia, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. With these conditions, her school did not have basic equipment, let alone a functioning lab. But that did not stop Okromelidze, who was always drawn to science.
“My mom was a doctor, my grandmother an engineer, and my grandfather was a teacher of physics,” she recalled. “So, when I was born, I was surrounded by people in STEM fields.”
From a young age, Okromelidze’s mother and grandmother would take her to their workplaces to shadow them. At the hospital where her mother worked as a radiologist, she would spend time with patients and doctors, seeing the impact of medical science firsthand. She could think of no better contribution to the world.
Having these role models was rare for a girl in her town, she said. “In my hometown, I was basically expected to grow up a be a housewife, so every time I would go to school to learn chemistry, people would say: ‘Why are you even doing that?’”
Now at Tbilisi State Medical University, Okromelidze credits the Amgen Scholars Program with fueling her love of STEM that first began with her family. “Amgen was an amazing point in my life because it was the first time I actually got hands-on experience in my field of research.”
The first-ever Amgen Scholar from Georgia, Okromelidze says that she had little access to information about international research opportunities. After doing the Future Leaders Exchange Program in the United States, however, she knew she wanted to explore more international travel in her pursuit of science, so she turned to the Internet to explore her options.
Okromelidze decided to apply to the Amgen Scholars Program in Tokyo after discovering that the program did not require prior research experience. It seemed tailor-made for a beginning scientist. She still remembers how surprised and excited she was to be admitted into the program: “I remember it was 7 in the morning when I received the email that I was selected, and I think the whole neighborhood heard me screaming.”
At first, she worried she would fail, as she felt behind other students. But she thrived with the help of fellow students and teachers. “This program gave me a chance to feel like I was equal,” Okromelidze said, and that “I can be successful in this field.”
Her 2015 Amgen Scholars experience has driven her to pursue a Ph.D., as she works toward the goal of becoming a medical doctor. For her own journey, having female role models in her mother, grandmother, and chemistry and biology teachers, encouraged her to follow her STEM path. Okromelidze now hopes her story will inspire and empower another generation of scientists in Georgia.
“I could never imagine while being in middle school that one day I would travel to Tokyo across so many countries to have my first research experience.”
For Marta Andres Terre, charting her path to becoming a global scientist started at a simple place: a deep curiosity about the world around her. That curiosity would drive her to explore ways to leave her hometown of Barcelona and travel the world.
She remembers being 14 years old and barging into her house to tell her parents she would be attending high school in the United Kingdom. She had found a brochure in her middle school classroom for a scholarship to UWC Atlantic College in Wales and applied for its international baccalaureate program. “I didn’t know much English, but when I got there, it just opened my eyes to how big the world was,” Andres Terre said.
Through that experience, she got hooked on two things: science and travel. She returned to Barcelona with an intense curiosity and interest in scientific experiments.
When she started the undergraduate program at the University of Barcelona, she realized that there were few opportunities for research for students like her. “It is hard as an undergrad in Spain to get research experience that is meaningful,” she explained. “And that’s just because there’s not a lot of funding in general.”
To find the research experience she was seeking, she knew she would have to leave Barcelona again. She first attended a summer program in Zurich, Switzerland, in which she pursued neuroscience research. She realized that neuroscience was not her passion and returned to her studies in Barcelona. The next summer, in 2010, she attended the Amgen Scholars Program in Stockholm, working in an immunology lab to study the molecular biology of tuberculosis infections.
It was there through a great mentor that she discovered a new feeling: independence in a lab. “In the Amgen Program, I was able to basically become an independent scientist,” she said. “You fail a lot but also whenever you have something that’s a small victory, it’s yours.”
She reminisced about her time with the other Amgen Scholars – living together in Stockholm, working during the day in the labs, and then hanging out in the city in the evening, all the while exploring Sweden. “After I did this program, I realized I really wanted to do research in immunology,” she said.
And now, 7 years later, Andres Terre is a Ph.D. student at Stanford in immunology, combining her study of infectious disease with systems biology. As one of the two Europeans in her year at Stanford, she noted that it is hard for other international students to do a Ph.D. in the United States, especially because of funding and language barriers.
But she credits family, friends, and mentors – from her Girl Scouts troop to mentors in the lab – with her success. It’s important, Andres Terre said, for a support network to guide young people toward their interests rather than try to force them into a particular profession, even in science. “Nothing is more discouraging that someone pressuring you to be something,” she said.
“It’s best to encourage students to be curious, to see how awesome it is to learn new things,” she said. “I remember the best experiences for me were doing experiments and learning things applicable to my own life.”