Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Fred Hutch’s Jeanne Chowning dedicated to variety and inclusion in science

Science is in her DNA! Dr. Jeanne Ting Chowning at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. (Caren Brinkema Photo)

Dr. Jeanne Ting Chowning is a lifelong educator with a passion for science — and a commitment to making sure that that passion reaches and is of service to underrepresented students and teachers.

“In my career, I’ve focused on supporting science teachers and their students,” Chowning said. “I’ve done this mostly through providing professional development and curriculum that helps teachers address new technologies in life sciences and their social and ethical implications.”

Our latest Geek of the Week, Chowning is currently the senior director of science education at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. She also serves as a district director for the National Science Teaching Association and as a volunteer with Seavuria, a non-profit that pairs students from Vuria, Kenya, with Seattle-area students and mentoring scientists.

“As someone with both Asian and European ancestry, an architect mother and physicist father, and degrees in both art and science, I often combine fields and interests and look for integrated approaches to problems,” Chowning said.

Keep reading to learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, and more of Chowning’s views on education, science and diversity:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I am committed to providing opportunities for students from historically marginalized groups to be included in science. Addressing inequities in science requires that we meet students where they are and help them experience the relevance of science to their lives. We must also elevate the voices and support the agency of those who have been traditionally marginalized or excluded from science.

Many students from underrepresented backgrounds don’t have access to scientists, opportunities to learn about research, or knowledge of the careers available to them. My goal at Fred Hutch is to help bridge the diversity gap in scientific research and provide opportunities to those who may not otherwise have them.

My colleagues and I do this through a variety of programs aimed at underrepresented students and teachers throughout the state. There’s a lot of evidence that suggests the quality of scientific research improves if the research group is diverse and inclusive of different perspectives and expertise. Who knows where the next life-saving discoveries could come from? But, as a recent article from our Director Gary Gilliland noted via LinkedIn, making science more inclusive is also simply the right thing to do.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? It’s not enough to provide young people with opportunities or access to careers. It’s also critical for each of us to commit to the ongoing work of examining ourselves, our own biases, and the role we play in fostering a culture that values and celebrates diverse participants and their experiences. Additionally, it’s important that we turn our attention to the beliefs, systems, and institutions that perpetuate racism, sexism, and other historical injustices in science. On a broader scale, we need to shift the practices in our educational and scientific institutions to address the roles they play in perpetuating inequities.

Where do you find your inspiration? Education is a long game. Sometimes we never know or see the impacts of our work. But if you stay in the field long enough, you’ll often hear from former students or teachers who share with you how your efforts made a difference. That’s the best feeling in the world — to be able to be of service to someone else as they find their own path in life.

When I was a high school teacher in the 1990’s, I participated in the Fred Hutch teacher program I now direct (the Science Education Partnership, SEP). The program was transformative for my own career — so I’m delighted to be able to help other teachers have similar experiences.

I recently reconnected with a former student who created a science community partnership/outreach program at his university for underrepresented and economically disadvantaged high school students. We also have scientists at Fred Hutch who were former students of the SEP science teachers we work with; because of the impact their teachers made, these young scientists now want to step up to mentor new science teachers. Those types of stories keep me inspired!

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I have a really bad sense of direction so navigation apps like Waze have been a lifesaver.

(Photo courtesy of Jeanne Chowning)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Right outside my office our lab is filled with nearly 120 loaner kits of molecular biology equipment/supplies for schools as well as surplus from Fred Hutch labs that we share with teachers. We provide resources to over 15,000 science students annually, so we have a busy and crowded working environment! I intentionally transformed my own windowless office space into a place of relative light and calm. I have an adjustable stand-up desk (that I don’t use standing up as much as I should). I have multiple screens, which helps a lot with productivity, and a small seating area for meetings with others.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Many other geeks of the week have mentioned keeping a clean inbox and scheduling time for exercise and other personally sustaining activities. One small thing I do is to clean my desk area before I leave each day, so that I can start fresh and organized when I return.

I think folks in the non-profit world have a lot that they can learn from business processes. I have a modified Kanban board for my own projects that is super helpful. There are online versions, but I prefer the old-fashioned post-its. Not only can I externalize ideas and tasks as I think of them, but I also like seeing the progress of work and staying focused on priorities.

Mac, Windows or Linux? I’ve gone back and forth between Mac and Windows and right now I’m back on Mac, partly because the Basic Sciences division at Fred Hutch is Mac-centric.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Definitely the original, classic Kirk. I grew up watching the original series on TV so there is a nostalgia factor.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine! I would want to go back to the 1970’s and bring the stories of what is happening with our climate crisis today.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I think we need to invest in educational models that prioritize relationships with students and families, focus on relevance and real-world interdisciplinary problem-solving, and give students agency to be creative and pursue their own questions. I think our public schools in particular, deserve more support. A specific project that I’ve been thinking about a lot is developing a computational biology academy at Fred Hutch that would serve underrepresented students in middle and high school and encourage them to enter fields that lie at the intersection of biology and computing. Right now, those fields are some of the fastest-growing, highest-paying, and least diverse within biological sciences. For example, there are many scientists at Fred Hutch who use computational biology to track the evolution and spread of deadly viruses (Nextstrain). I believe many young people who would otherwise not be interested in computer sciences would be drawn into computational fields by an opportunity to benefit their communities or work towards life-saving treatments for cancer.

I once waited in line for … Recently, I waited in line to see Rick Steves’ movie, “The Story of Fascism in Europe.” There are a lot of lessons in history for us.

Your role models: My father, S.C.C. Ting, has taught me about the value of perseverance, believing in the power of possibility, and the importance of inspiring a shared vision. I also respect the individuals who have worked for a more just, equitable, and sustainable future.

Greatest game in history: My husband and I have been playing the board game Wingspan obsessively for the last six months. Does that count? I’m not really interested in sports, so I don’t have a game for you there!

Best gadget ever: I’ll provide two answers. For high tech: I am very happy with my new Bluetooth earbuds. On the low tech side: A potato masher is the key to good mashed potatoes.

First computer: Apple Macintosh Plus. I typed all my undergraduate papers on a typewriter, so the arrival of the Mac was truly revolutionary.

Current phone: iPhone XS.

Favorite app: Twitter because there’s a very robust community of scientists and science educators. There’s also several niche groups where I can find other geeky folks who also like salamanders, lizards, or nudibranchs! There are some negative dimensions to social media, but one benefit is that if you follow some interesting people (for example, the growing community of scientists of color) and just listen, you can learn a lot about their experiences and challenges.

Favorite cause: Educational equity: Before coming to the Hutch, I served as the associate executive director of Rainier Scholars, a program that provides students (first-gen low-income students of color) and their families with 12 years of sustained educational and wrap-around support, from 5th grade to college graduation and beyond. The focus is on building tomorrow’s leaders and change-makers. Many educational interventions are superficial and quick, but Rainier Scholars understands the value of building sustained relationships with students and families. There are many other great programs in our area — Technology Access Foundation has been doing amazing work in this space as well.

Most important technology of 2020: At Fred Hutch, computational biologists are working closely with our immunotherapy scientists to harness the power of AI for improved diagnosis and treatment for cancer.

Most important technology of 2022: I’m going to say that the technologies that help us shift away from a fossil fuel economy and towards alternative energy sources will be the most important in the next few years. We need all hands on-deck to address the climate crisis.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Dr. Bill Foege (who helped eradicate smallpox) said “There is something better than science, and that is science with a moral compass, science in the service of humanity, science that makes current deeds responsive to future needs.” My advice would be for us to not lose sight of the need to be critical and thoughtful about how we use science and technology, and to direct our efforts towards serving humanity and the natural world we belong to.

Website: Fred Hutch Education & Training

Twitter: @jchowning and @SciEdHutch

LinkedIn: Jeanne Chowning

Editor’s note: Fred Hutch’s science education programs are made possible in part by funding from the National Institutes of Health, including a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), and a Youth Enjoy Science (YES) award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The contents of this interview are solely the responsibility of Dr. Chowning and do not necessarily represent the official views of the NIGMS, NCI, or NIH.

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