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Belonging in STEM: An Interview with Samaga Pokharel

By David Weafer

On a train ride from Everett, MA to Cambridge, MA in 2021, Samaga Pokharel headed to her first summer STEM internship at Forsyth, wondering if she really belonged in a STEM program. She was among a small number of students who were attending in-person STEM programs that summer of 2021, with many in-person programs canceled due to the pandemic. Forsyth Education Director Dr. Megan Pugach-Gordon, did everything she could to give students hands-on experience and ultimately designed the hybrid program that Samaga worked in. Still, as she rode the train that first day, Samaga felt imposter syndrome lingering in the back of her mind.

However, by the end of the summer, when Samaga took the train back to Everett, she left Forsyth with technical skills, new ideas about what she could do with her career, and a newfound sense of confidence in her abilities. Now a Sophomore at Harvard University, she feels a lot more confident about belonging in STEM.

Building a foundation with technical skills

The Forsyth Student Scholars Summer Internship Program offers high school students from underserved communities the opportunity to work side-by-side in the laboratory with world-renowned scientists engaged in cutting-edge research. When students come to the lab, most have never had any hands-on lab training. This internship gives them the opportunity to learn both hard and soft skills in the lab.

Scientists at Forsyth cover fundamental lab skills with the Student Scholars, giving them valuable training they don’t have access to in their high schools. Samaga felt that learning technical lab skills such as pipetting (a method used to transfer and measure small amounts of liquids) and performing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) helped smooth her transition into college biology classes. She found jumping into lab and content introductions less overwhelming in college because of her exposure to it at Forsyth.

Another cornerstone of the internship is the focused research project. For her independent project, Samaga chose to investigate AI imaging and, in the process, also learned new computer skills. To compare the ability of different AI imaging methods to detect enamel defects, she had to learn Python, a computer programming tool, and develop an understanding of image acquisition and image processing. Through these experiences, Samaga feels that Forsyth gave her a better understanding of the interdisciplinary relationships between AI and biology.

Takeaways that go beyond the lab

For Samaga, as for many FSS students, the skills learned at Forsyth also included valuable soft skills that translate across fields and majors. Samaga told us that one of the most memorable learning experiences for her was when part of her final project didn’t go as planned. She recalled, “The cameras weren’t working at a certain point, and we had to pivot a little on the end goal for what we were trying to accomplish by the end of the summer. Just by watching my PI strategize how we can pivot taught me a lot about how to handle situations in labs.” Samaga learned that when something didn’t work the way she expected it to, it wasn’t a failure. Instead, it became an opportunity to discover a new way to approach a problem.

Gaining self-confidence may be the most impactful takeaway from Samaga’s summer at Forsyth, something that has helped her as she attends college. Samaga started college as a Biology major, but soon found it didn’t quite feel like the best choice. However, she kept exploring different majors that have connections to what she learned at Forsyth. She shared, “The experience was the first time I gained exposure to the various career paths related to STEM and the interdisciplinary relationships between different topics–such as engineering, photography, and biology. When I was pivoting from Biology, I still looked into STEM majors because I knew what STEM majors could do out of college… If I hadn’t gotten an experience at Forsyth, I would have felt less confident about exploring various STEM areas because I would have lacked the bigger picture for the kinds of careers I could have after graduating.” Samaga gained the insight and confidence at Forsyth to bend rather than break with the wind when a project or even a major doesn’t turn out as planned.

Trying on different careers

Samaga is currently testing out different STEM paths before making a final decision on her major. After spending a summer in Forsyth labs, she realized that seeing the end goal could help inform her decision. She elaborated, “Although the topics I’m learning in school will be essential to my career. Most of what I will be doing in the real workplace will not be copied and pasted from what I do in classrooms. I think Forsyth allowed me to understand that by exposing me to careers.” She puts this lesson to use by seeking out internships where she can explore the real-world application of what she learns in class.

Samaga has gained experience in various Health areas after graduating from the program. This past summer, Samaga worked in Mass General Hospital’s health insurance department. She appreciated that she got to see a different side of the health field in this role. From research to health insurance, she continues to broaden her horizons and gain valuable career insights before making it halfway through her 4-year degree.

As Samaga continues to explore different areas of Health and STEM, she is certain about one thing. She wants to give back to her community. Samaga appreciates that Forsyth’s community programs provide opportunities for underrepresented students like her. She considered, “One of the reasons why the experience was so fruitful for me is because I realized that I want to do something that would involve giving back to the community… whether that’s through volunteering or working in a place that values putting in resources and funds to create equitable opportunities for under-resourced communities, just like Forsyth did.”

Stories like Samaga’s are the reason FSS exists. FSS gave her tools and a network that she couldn’t get in high school. Now, she encourages other students to seek out STEM opportunities, knowing firsthand how much of an impact experience can make.

Samaga’s Advice

Samaga advises high school students to seek opportunities outside of school. She recommended, “If your school doesn’t offer these opportunities, don’t let that discourage you, let that be your weapon to seek opportunities outside. Reach out to companies in the area and try to gain experience in areas that interest you. Any experience is a valuable experience. You don’t have to cure cancer; you just need to find a way to get exposure and get better at what you really love to do to see growth.”

Samaga would like to reassure students that they can still succeed in STEM when they enter college, even if they come from areas with limited resources. She added, “many times when you attend college in hopes of doing something related to STEM, you might have questions like, ‘Am I even good enough for this?’ The existing imposter syndrome might make more sense when you see that your peers tend to have a much stronger foundation from their high schools than you do. However, don’t let that discourage you. There are plenty of others in your shoes. Find those people and push each other for success. If you are a first-generation low-income student, you might have to put in more effort than others to get to the level that everyone else is in, however, you can certainly catch up and don’t let anyone discourage you.”

Samaga’s advice is a powerful reminder that if you have a passion for STEM, then you belong regardless of your background or circumstances. With her positive outlook we know Samaga will find the career that is best for her and make a meaningful impact in her community.

This interview was edited for clarity.

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