January 9, 2024

Meet Hanaan Abdulmalik-Vollmer, a senior at Stevenson University in Maryland. She’s been telling everyone from younger family members to her professors with children to get involved with Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Sciences (GEMS) for years – read on to hear why!

What made you decide to participate in AEOP? Why did you choose GEMS?

I was first a GEMS participant the summer after my fifth-grade year. My teacher during this time was pivotal, introducing me to AEOP and writing me a recommendation. I attended GEMS almost every summer I could, and my younger siblings also became involved! Then, the summer after high school, I became a Near-Peer Mentor (NPM). 

I knew so many great people who had been doing the program for so long that I wanted to join, too. I started in Frederick, Maryland, where I spent two summers teaching scratch coding to middle schoolers. There, I met a student who now attends Stevenson University with me – I love bumping into AEOP alumni! After two summers at the Frederick location, I became a NPM in Silver Spring, Maryland, where I had the opportunity to teach biology, my favorite subject. 

How has AEOP prepared you for the scientific world? How has it helped you professionally and personally?

There has been so much that I’ve learned through GEMS that has prepared me for success in various scientific fields. This past summer, I was at the University of Maryland-Baltimore, where I was the lead mentor for a research and mentoring program; my years as a NPM more than prepared me for this role.

AEOP has helped me figure out my college and career trajectory, too. When I was first applying for college and deciding on my major, I was debating studying finance. Even though I knew my interests were in STEM, I thought a degree in finance would offer me more stability. I also felt that a degree in STEM was only for those interested in pre-med or that, in order to succeed, you had to obtain many degrees. But when I became a NPM for the first time and realized how much I enjoy STEM, it felt like the epitome of the saying, “find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I realized that I enjoyed working with students. I knew I didn’t want to be a full-time classroom teacher, but I still wanted to make it so that students can learn and have fun at the same time in STEM.

Now, I’m doing a lot as a college student: I work at my university’s library, I’m a school ambassador, I tutor and I work in a lab! As a tutor, I cover biology, psychology, statistics and microbiology. When I was a NPM in Silver Spring, I made my own lesson plans and curriculum. I felt so rewarded when my GEMS lessons on microbial spices went over so well with my students. They created petri dishes with various spices to see how much bacteria grew on them. 

This experiment showed how medicinal herbs from various cultures are still used today because they have some antimicrobial properties. Rather than a high-level science concept that younger students struggle to grasp, creating an experiment that connected to students’ everyday lives, with spices they eat in their own meals, meant I was able to engage with students deeply. I’m also a lab services assistant where I do everything! I’m always helping with organization, refilling supplies, preparing chemicals or plates for labs, preparing lab kits and sterilizing equipment. I did some of this in Silver Springs, where I was taught how to manage a lab – disposing waste can be intricate!

What’s one of your favorite memories from your time participating in GEMS?

I’ve loved all of my experiences with GEMS! But a standout memory comes from the second summer of being a NPM at the Frederick location. I deeply enjoyed working with my group of other Mentors. We created an introduction video where we all danced, and we picked “September” as our theme song. Normally I don’t dance in front of people, but I had a lot of fun! At the end of each group’s time in GEMS, we’d play the song and come out dancing with the certificates for graduation. It’s important to have fun with what you’re doing!

What future goals do you have? How has AEOP helped you get closer to them?

I’m not entirely sure, but working to inspire students to pursue STEM in a non-traditional school setting is where my passion sits. I graduate in May 2024, and after, I might get a masters in teaching, or I might want to work in an organization like AEOP or a university that offers STEM programs for students. If I become an educator, I would want to do RESET

What would you say to those interested in AEOP STEM programs? Any advice?

Sign up! Apply! AEOP gets you valuable lab experience. Not every student gets to do something like this, and it’s a free program – most programs like this cost money and don’t have scholarships available. I was grateful to receive a stipend as a Mentor.

These experiences also show you what you like – and what you don’t. It was solidified for me that I want my future to include both biology as well as education. And it helped teach my fellow NPMs that they wanted to be in STEM but not education, which is ok! STEM opportunities like the ones offered through AEOP also teach students to explore their interests and find their passions. After completing the species experiment, one student said, “I want to be a microbiologist!” Another student said, “I want to be a writer.” They were able to find what they liked after participating in hands-on STEM experiences. AEOP gives everyone a chance to explore options before becoming a college student studying one specific major.

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