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3 Questions: Renae Irving on creating supportive learning environments for middle- and high-school students

Molecular biology researcher and MIT alumna is an Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) instructor.
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Renae Irving '18 is a molecular biology research associate, and Academic Mentoring Seminar instructor for the SEED Academy program at MIT.
Renae Irving '18 is a molecular biology research associate, and Academic Mentoring Seminar instructor for the SEED Academy program at MIT.
Photo: Dora P. Gonzalez

The MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) runs outreach programs under the School of Engineering for underrepresented and underserved students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Since 1975, its programs have served more than 4,400 middle- and high-school students, free of charge. 

Renae Irving '18, is a molecular biology research associate at Finch Therapeutics Group, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, and a graduate of the OEOP Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program. Her work focuses on developing genetic sequencing of the microbiome, and understanding its influence in inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis. She is also a Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy Academic Mentoring Seminar (AMS) instructor, and during her five-year journey as part of the OEOP instructional staff she has also been teaching assistant for the MITES, MIT Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community (MOSTEC), and E2 programs. Irving hails from Lawrenceville, Georgia, and holds a bachelor’s degree in biological engineering with a minor in Spanish from MIT; she is preparing to pursue a MD-PhD program. Irving recently spoke on her work with OEOP and its students.

Q: What inspired you to become an OEOP instructor and what keeps you coming back?

A: I came to the OEOP as a MITES student, when I was a rising high school senior in 2013. I went to a STEM-focused high school, and had an interest in medicine and disease, but didn’t have a clear idea of the field. During MITES I was part of the genomics course, which is offered in collaboration with the Broad Institute. The course gave me a better understanding of biological engineering, synthetic biology, and the vast applications for microbes. After MITES, I decided to pursue my interest in bioengineering, and I ended up at MIT as an undergrad. I knew I wanted to be a doctor and have an MD-PhD one day, so, as a pre-med student, a lot of the work I chose to do was clinically focused.

As an undergrad, I really wanted to give back to the OEOP, so I became a teaching assistant for MITES. Over the course of three years I expanded into other programs, including MOSTEC and E2. I found being a [teaching assistant] very rewarding, because I helped create the same environment that helped me learn when I was in MITES, giving students more exposure to science and engineering. After graduation, as a professional, it only made sense to continue to give back, and I found I was best suited to be a program instructor. I was really excited to apply, but I worried it would be difficult to teach bioengineering outside of a lab. Then I saw they were also looking for an Academic Mentoring Seminar instructor for the 12th grade, and I realized I had great training for the role, and could truly support students.

The reason I stay engaged comes down to the OEOP feeling like family. It would feel like a loss if I wasn’t in contact with this community that is like my family. I also think everything that I give to the programs and the people that I’m working with actually comes back to me in some way. It gives me so much joy working with the students, and the staff, I can’t imagine not doing it.

I know that one day, if I’m not steps away from MIT, that I’m definitely going to miss this.

Q: How do you help students gain confidence to pursue a career in STEM?

A: As an instructor, I share as much as I can about my journey and how I got to the position where I am. Students have told me it is really helpful to hear and see the passion that I have for the STEM-focused work I do. They enjoy hearing about my research in biological engineering and how I obtained a position in a biotech company. As a MITES student, I remember having TAs that were really good at acknowledging the challenge of STEM fields, but also did a good job highlighting the benefits of collaboration, or cool research they were looking forward to. When I became a TA, I tried to intersperse my experiences taking biochemistry in MITES with my experiences thus far as an MIT college student.

As an instructor, I work to create an open environment where students feel they can ask questions freely, without judgment, and feel like they can fail knowing that it will lead them to learning, which is something they may not experience on a day-to-day basis in their high schools. I want to offer a supportive community, because as a MITES student I felt that I always had a team of college students and instructors supporting me. In my instructor role I really try to reinforce that sense of community.

I also encourage students by celebrating the work they do as part of OEOP programs. Students are often building amazing things, they are all super-excited for their projects, it’s important to have someone cheering for them, celebrating their achievements and being there as they go through the challenge. I see the instructor role as supporting students both in terms of knowledge, helping them understand concepts, but also working with them to reach their college and career aspirations. My metric for success as an instructor is to empower students to choose the college that fits them best, to make choices that benefit them and make them happy in the future.

Q: What is the most challenging part of the OEOP instructor experience? And the most rewarding?

A: OEOP students are really driven and resourceful, which can make lesson planning challenging. I plan the lesson around concepts and foundational knowledge that I want them to walk away with, but sometimes I get to class and realize the students are steps ahead of me, so I have to plan ahead for the sorts of enrichment that will be best for them when this happens. I also have to know how to answer questions I might not be prepared for, and that’s a great challenge to have.

The best part of my experience as an instructor is seeing the students and how much they grow in the programs, and in college. I see SEED students most weeks during a semester, and many OEOP alumni end up at MIT or around Boston/Cambridge. When they leave OEOP programs they’ve already achieved so much growth. When they’re in college, you feel like you have propelled them even further.

It’s rewarding to hear students reflect on the impact that the OEOP had on them, but also any small impact I had on them. I treasure knowing that something that I taught a student about chemistry is something they remember two years into college. Or the times when I teach my students to knit during study break. I think of all my experiences with the OEOP, and they are all muddled together in warmth and happiness of knowing that I’ve touched so many students and that I’ve had some impact throughout that time.

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