Chemistry Graduate Student Outreach Highlight: Megan Ericson

Compiled and edited for clarity by Hannah Musgrove

Megan Ericson
L.E.A.D. (Leadership through Experimentation, Awareness, and Demonstration) VP, Interim President
Harman Lab, Organic Synthesis
4th year

Per their website, “the L.E.A.D. program is dedicated to promoting chemistry through science education and awareness at the local level, through programs at the University of Virginia (such as BLAST), as well as within classrooms across the state of Virginia. Graduate and undergraduate students perform exciting demonstrations and facilitate classroom science experiments for elementary and middle school students in the Charlottesville area and beyond through hands-on, inquiry-based activities. All lessons are developed to be in accordance with the Science Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools.” Megan has been an essential, and innovative member of L.E.A.D throughout her time in graduate school. ChemSciComm had the opportunity to learn more about Megan’s work and perspective on outreach as a graduate student in Chemistry.

What brought you to UVA Chemistry?

“I completed my B.S. and M.S. at the University of North Texas and chose UVA for my PhD studies for a few reasons: 1) Charlottesville has mountains and I had only ever lived in Illinois and Texas, 2) Dave Matthews is from Charlottesville and 3) all of my visitation weekends moved virtual because it was March 2020 (peak shutdown) and the students and professors made a virtual visitation as fun and informative as it could be given the circumstances (shout out to Dr. Hilinski and Anna Davis). I found my love for research at UNT so although I wasn’t drawn to a particular group or project, I knew I wanted to focus on synthesis. When I joined the Harman lab, I had a great starter project and mentor.  I then moved into unexplored territory and have made some cool discoveries so far. I think what inspires my work changes from day to day, but the overall feeling of accomplishing something you’ve put so much energy into, is it.”

What inspired you to participate and lead in LEAD?

“Like many, I went to my first LEAD meeting because they had free pizza. I continued my participation in LEAD because it gave me an opportunity to get out of lab and socialize with graduate students that were outside my field.  I started in LEAD as Secretary, moved to Vice President and now [serve as the] interim president. The main reason I continued to volunteer with LEAD was because I had an absolute blast doing demo shows for summer camps and making lava lamps at Virginia Discovery Museum events. The longer I volunteered with LEAD and the more I helped with organizing and planning events, the more I was showing up for the kids. Kids love learning and their passion and excitement is unmatchable. I love giving them an opportunity to explore the sides of science they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.”

Are there any outcomes from [department outreach/involvement] that surprised you?

"I was most pleasantly surprised when my outreach resulted in a partnership between L.E.A.D. and the Reclaimed Hope Initiative. This is a local non-profit support group for foster/adoption families, and children with disabilities. Did you know almost a third of children in foster care have a disability? This past fall we brought science activities to the Reclaimed Hope Initiative's Parent's Night Out and we plan to return this spring semester and help with Camp Hope this summer."

What challenges have you overcome while leading in L.E.A.D?

“Our biggest challenge is getting student volunteers for events. LEAD has a great team of officers, but it feels like we are the only people attending the events. It is hard to keep a club afloat with little student interest. LEAD seems to get the most interest during BLAST! camp when volunteers are offered some monetary incentives. I am planning to work with DEI initiatives around the department and university to write a grant that could help better support student volunteers.”

Has there been a particularly memorable or rewarding aspect of your experience in this role?

“The most memorable moments come from the public. Listening to kids tell their parents about the scientists they met or the experiments they performed. We have had parents recognize LEAD members in public and share their kid’s long-term excitement about their experiences with us.”

What does it mean to you to be a part of the Chemistry Community, either in the department or in a broader sense?

“Chemistry is an intimidating topic. I like simplifying material for kids and inviting them to participate and explore their curiosity about science. It’s fun to see how much parents and adults are interested in and learn from our demonstrations.”  

What advice would you give to students wanting to get more involved in relevant outreach or wanting to be more involved in the department?

“Show up for free food and volunteer for events. LEAD is fun and it’s a great way to meet other chemistry graduate students!”

We are so grateful to Megan for sharing part of her graduate school story with us! Sharing our unique journeys through STEM enables us to connect and grow as a community.

If you’re a graduate student and are interested in any of the outreach opportunities LEAD provides, more information can be found on the Graduate Chemistry Program Clubs & Organizations page on the UVA Chemistry Department website. Students are also invited to keep an eye out for their department emails, as LEAD and GSC meetings occur. Additionally, feel free to reach out to the faculty advisors and leading members of the organizations for additional information, they are happy to connect with students to answer questions.