March 11, 2024

Meet Kierra McInnis, an outreach specialist for AEOP Internships and Fellowships, whose passion for connecting with youth is clear. Read on to find out how her STEM journey didn’t lead her to a research lab, like she had planned, but rather to engaging with students across the country!

When did you first get involved with AEOP? What made you decide to participate in AEOP?   

A past director of AEOP Internships reached out to me and asked if I wanted to get involved mentoring high school students because it was well known how much I love both research and teaching. I spent the summer of 2021 working virtually with high school students through AEOP Internships. I was a Near Peer Mentor supporting a Research Foundations summer program. My background is in biology, but these students studied robotics and built and guided robots through obstacles, which was so interesting. 

That love for both research and engaging with students – and my prior AEOP experience – has now led me to being an outreach specialist for AEOP Internships and Fellowships! I mainly work with high school students, doing something new every day. I respond to inquiries from the helpline, which could be from applicants, students, past participants or parents. I review applications, host monthly workshops, work on curating a speaker series, and even do a bit of marketing. I also work with a lot of AEOP interns who are doing research all over the country, where I help them turn their research papers into JSHS projects and applications.

That’s a whole lot! How did you decide to pursue outreach as a career?

I didn’t know outreach was a job when I was in college. I found a good few mentors at university, though. I completed summer research outreach programs at Binghamton University and Syracuse University and was a Science & Technology Entry Program (STEP) tutor through college. STEP is a New York state-funded initiative that aims to support and encourage middle and high school youth in their pursuit of education and career in STEM. These research experiences opened my eyes to many other opportunities, so I personally know how life changing programs like AEOP Internships and Fellowships can be! Then I saw how important outreach programs are and understood that being an outreach specialist was a combination of everything I like to do. I think mentorship – and representation in mentorship – is very important.

As a mentor, what are your favorite moments?

At the end of some summer programs, we have interviewed students on what they gained. I’ve even been able to attend virtual presentations to hear about the research they’ve completed. Seeing them realize what they’ve learned and understand how capable they are is my favorite part of this job.

What’s also wonderful is that even if students leave the program, we’re still there to help! Maybe they’ve moved away or aged out of an AEOP program, but students reach out afterwards; they have questions on STEM, research, or sometimes the transition from high school to college. I always appreciate when students share their own successes both within and outside of AEOP.

Do you have any advice for high schoolers applying for an AEOP Internship? Or advice on turning a project into a JSHS submission?

Number one: be yourself 100%. This is what I always tell students when they ask how to stand out on an application. It’s important to be open minded, try new things and not let any fears or worries stop you. Know that there’s so many people out there who want to support you; your support system is bigger than you think it is. Ask questions!

For JSHS submissions specifically, remind yourself to be confident in yourself – you know the research! 

I’ve seen students achieve things they never thought they could, and I myself have achieved great things, too. I thought that I’d be working in a lab or going to grad school. It was a little scary to become an outreach specialist when I had never thought it was something I could be. But there’s more to being a biologist than working in a lab, and I’m so glad I’ve gotten to combine my passions for research with students and STEM.

How has AEOP helped you either professionally or personally? 

Professionally, AEOP has helped in probably every way. I’ve done marketing, administrative work, and I’ve even been a JSHS judge, so I’m building a broader skill set. I’ve gotten to network, and interact with interesting people. I have been able to travel, too; I went to the national JSHS competition! 

What are your future goals or plans?

I am very interested in having more students interested in turning their projects into JSHS applications. I am also trying to build more relationships with students and figuring out ways to connect more deeply with high school students.

To learn more about AEOP High School Internships, visit here. To learn more about AEOP Undergraduate Internships, visit here.

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