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Nora Sun: An Interview with a Young Scientist

Whenever The Alcott Youth Magazine learns of a talented young woman generating global change, our publication is thrilled to shine light on her achievements. In 2020, Nora Sun, a high school student from Chicago, founded a summer research program for underprivileged teen girls: Talaria Summer Institute. During the program, girls have the opportunity to perform scientific research under accomplished professionals. Nora has directed the program, which has a thirteen-percent acceptance rate, for three summers. Her organization has worked with hundreds of teen girls and collaborated with institutions such as MIT, Yale, NASA, NIH, University of Toronto, and University of Edinburgh.

“[Talaria Summer Institute] was founded on the vision of young girls huddled together in the library late at night, running on excitement (and caffeine), exploring the depths of science together,” Nora said, sharing her initial ideas for the organization. “In the morning, they will meet with their mentors, researchers from institutions across the world, about their research projects. On weekends, they will hang out with each other at ice rinks and museums and coffee shops. After a month (usually July) of this, they will submit research papers and present their research findings at a scientific conference, concluding their Talaria journey.”

Nora’s inspiration to create the program arose from her own challenges in STEM courses. “Growing up, I noticed a phenomenon: When boys enrolled in advanced male-dominated science classes and struggled with the content, they simply thought that they needed to put more time into the homework or seek help from their peers. However, when girls enrolled in these advanced science classes and struggled with the content, they began to doubt whether they were capable of advanced content; thoughts like ‘my brain is simply not meant for this’ would intrude.

“I experienced this phenomenon myself until I started exploring scientific research in middle and high school. The process of deciphering scientific knowledge from high-level papers, constructing a research proposal, and analyzing data and drawing conclusions required me to actively interact with scientific concepts in a way that I never had before. After drawing my own novel scientific research conclusions, my confidence and self-efficacy increased greatly. When I returned to those male-dominated science classes, I no longer had any doubt that I was capable of eventually conquering any concepts I struggled with.”

However, Nora recognizes that not all young girls receive the opportunity to perform such research— an inequality that motivated her to create Talaria for lower-income individuals. “Teens who know and have access to scientific research maintain a privileged field. Generally, teens with research internships come from high-earning families who live in larger cities that offer research opportunities to high school students. Many teens do not have these conditions… We try to select for mentees who face additional challenges such as living in an under-resourced or rural region.”

Her organization has made a substantial difference in educating young women of underprivileged backgrounds. “In addition to building their self-efficacy and knowledge of scientific research through working with their mentors, mentees gain access to a community of teen girls with similar interests and passions inside and outside of science,” Nora said. “Many mentees cite that peer-editing and discussing scientific ideas with this community has improved their scientific collaboration skills.

“Additionally, mentees grow as people as well; many mentees have been inspired by their experience in the program to volunteer at Talaria after they graduate as a mentee. Some have even begun their own initiatives promoting women in science, stating that participating in Talaria gave them the connections and self-confidence as well as leadership and time management skills to begin these projects.”

For other girls interested in entrepreneurship, Nora’s advice is simple: “Identify a problem that remains without solution. Generally, this problem should affect a large population slightly or a small population severely. (Problems that affect a large population severely generally are being worked on by larger organizations already.) Then, brainstorm a unique solution to the problem—be sure to back up this solution with research. Finally, pitch your solution to everyone you know, from your friends to your teachers, until you’ve gathered enough people who believe in you to actualize your solution.”

Although Talaria Summer Institute has been a resounding success, Nora recognizes the challenges she has encountered as a young girl creating a global organization. “I am sure that I have been doubted because of my age or gender. Though I’ve seldom received direct comments about it, I think this type of doubt is most apparent through partners who stop responding after the first face-to-face meeting. My advice for facing this would simply be to overcome by reaching out for more opportunities from groups who do not harbor prejudices.”

“Researchers from universities and institutions across the world… have volunteered as mentors for Talaria Summer Institute,” Nora said, refusing to allow prejudice towards her age or gender interfere with her ambitions for the program. “We were able to recruit mentors from these prestigious institutions despite being teenagers—I was 14 at the time Ritu Raman, a Forbes 30 Under 30 researcher at MIT joined Talaria as a mentor—by communicating in an effective, professional manner. We drafted many documents regarding Talaria’s philosophy and mentorship duties to present a convincing argument to mentors we wished to join our program. My advice to anyone hoping to collaborate with well-known organizations is to run your organization on the level of professionalism and efficiency that the well-known organization is run on.”

In the meantime, Nora continues to pursue her primary objective for the program: to increase cognitive diversity in scientific research. “Cognitive diversity is a loose term for different ways of thinking—generally, individuals from different backgrounds will approach a scientific problem differently. Lack of cognitive diversity significantly slows scientific progress because a homogenous group of researchers cannot catch their own blindspots when working on a problem. Women are incredibly underrepresented in academic research and comprise less than 30% of faculty, even in more female-dominated areas of science like biology. I hope that one day Talaria Summer Institute can make a sizable impact on cognitive diversity in scientific research.”

Nora encourages all girls from underprivileged backgrounds to apply to Talaria Summer Institute. You can learn more about the program via their website and ABWIS’ Instagram, @abwis_org. Applications for Talaria Summer Institute’s 2023 program will open in winter of 2022 and close in spring of 2023. If you are a high school student to college freshman in the fall of 2023 and are interested in science, Nora highly recommends that you apply. If you are not eligible for the program but would like to support the organization, you can also purchase Talaria Summer Institute merchandise here.

About the Author:

Kaitlyn Donato is a high school student from Winchester, MA. In her sophomore year, Kaitlyn recognized that there were too few magazines focused on writing for and by young women and created The Alcott Youth Magazine. With the magazine, she hopes to publish inspirational writing for all young people to enjoy.

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