At NGS’ Science Social Café, MCBees Women Serve as Role Models, Exemplify Careers in Science


An NGS student interacts with the MCB students during the March 9th NGS Science Social Café.

March 19, 2018

On Thursday March 8th, six MCB PhD students briefly put the work in their labs on hold to drop by the Science Social Café at Next Generation School’s STEAM Studio in Champaign. There, while a group of 11 middle school girls ate their lunches, they served as role models, explained a bit about how they ended up in science, shared what doing research as an MCB graduate student at Illinois is like, and described their career goals and other possible careers in their field. Plus, they were available to answer any of the younger students’ questions. The goal of the event? According to STEAM Studio Director Angela Nelson, it was to “break the boundary of ‘You could be a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer,’” and open the youngsters up to the myriads of possible careers, such as in science and research.

The six, all PhD students in Illinois’ School of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB), are all also members of the MCBees GSA (Graduate Student Association). Passionate about their fields and about research, these women are also passionate about sharing their love of science with students younger than they; in fact, most have been actively participating in many outreach activities, including those organized by the MCBees’. So they all made time in their busy schedules for this particular outreach; however, their primary motivations varied.


MCB PhD student Andie Liu shares her story with the NGS students.

Most acknowledged that they came to the Café to serve as role models for the girls. For example, MCB PhD student Andie Liu says that when she was little, her aunt, who is a scientist, was her role model. So her goal in participating in the Café was to possibly be a role model for some of these girls.

“I came today because when I was young, I was hoping that I’d have the chance to interact with a more senior female scientist. I hope this is a good chance to tell the girls here my story.”

Liu studies small molecules produced by bacteria to fight each other, which she indicates are often times antibiotics, and sometimes antifungal. “It’s a nice reservoir for people to find new drugs,” she reports.


Jessica Kelliher shares with the group about her career goals.

Jessica Kelliher, another Ph.D student in MCB, states that she came to the event in order to share about her journey:

“About how I’ve been interested in science and following my passion for science since grade school.”

Plus, she admits that she hoped to “inspire young girls do the same on this international women’s day.”  

Kelliher, who studies how Staphylococcus Aureus survives in the human body, more specifically studies how staph competes with the human host for nutrients like iron and zinc. 

Along with being role models for the girls, the ladies also came to share with the middle schoolers the idea that there are lots of different, exciting career possibilities in science.

For example, Katie Frye was another MCB PhD student who, growing up, had no idea that she could choose a career in science.

She confesses, “I liked science all along, but I didn’t think it was a career. I didn’t know that graduate school even existed.”


Katie Frye shares her personal history and how she ended up at Illinois.

So Frye hoped to “help other little ‘me’s’ that don’t know that science is an option and that there’s actually things you can do. Not just, “Oh, I like science; I’m going to do it in school,’ No, you can actually pursue it for your life.” 

Like Kelliher, Frye also studies Staph aureus in Thomas Kehl-Fie’s lab.

Also underscoring the idea that there are lots of great career possibilities in science was PhD student Kristen Farley, also hoped to convey to the girls that if they like science, it would make a great career.


MCB PhD student Kristen Farley shares her personal path to science with the NGS students.

“I came for a lot of the same reasons that Katie came, says Farley. “When I was young, I was interested in science but I didn’t know that you could actually make it your career. I’d like to share that with these girls and give them a role model also.”

Farley’s research involves the study of a microbe that’s not a bacterium, but an Archean, a member of the third domain of life that was actually discovered here on campus by Carl Woese fairly recently. She adds that the microbe is completely anaerobic, which means it’s killed by oxygen and produces methane as a bi-product of its metabolism. She specifically studies microbes that live in the human gut, trying to develop genetic tools to study those organisms.


MCB PhD student Pritha Rao explains to the students about her current research.

Like Farley, Pritha Rao also hoped to influence some of the girls toward careers in research. And although she agrees it can make a great career, her main motivation was to recruit some additional help in the field solving some of the problems that need to be addressed. “I came today not only to be an inspiration to them, but to show them that there’s a career in science that they can do. There are a lot of unexplored questions out there that we still don’t know the answers to.”

While Rao wanted to be an inspiration to them, she also hoped that they might inspire her as well.  “Because these are young girls,” she explains, “they haven’t explored anything, but they are full of energy to explore what is all there. Sometimes as we get older, I think we lose enthusiasm for everyday life. When we get into contact with the young girls, it brings back the enthusiasm. What we are doing is worthwhile, and it’s worth it to spread the message and encourage them.”

Rao, whose research is about how DNA is managed inside the cell, reports that if a cell’s DNA is not duplicated or repaired properly, there are little consequences. “So we are studying how these little consequences can be manipulated in terms of designing new drugs for curing cancer. 


MCB PhD student Pritha Rao (right) listens as one of her follow grad students tells her story.

Like many of the other ladies, MCB PhD student Mara Livezey participated in the Café for many of the same reasons that these women already stated; she wanted to be a role model and encourage each youngster that a career in science is possible. But she had an even loftier hope—that maybe some of them might end up increasing the pool of female science faculty in higher education.

“There really aren’t that many female faculty,” she acknowledges, “…maybe because they never had women as scientific role models. I think something that’s really good is to expose young girls to, ‘Yes, you can be a scientist.’


MCB PhD student Mara Livezey explains to the NGS students how she ended up as a grad student in MCB researching cancer.

So Livezey also hoped to sow the seed that another possible career they might aspire to is to become a faculty member. “This is something that women can do as well. So hopefully, over time, the percentage of faculty scientists who are women increases to become more equitable.”

Livezey believes that this shortage might be due to a lack of female role models. “I think some of the past, it wasn’t because there was some bias against women in science. It’s good just to have that strong female role model.”


Two NGS students enjoy the Café.

Livezey, who researches breast cancer, indicates that in her lab, they do two different but related things. One is to study the pathway that protects cancer cells and helps them grow. “We want to understand how that works, how it helps them grow, and how it supports things that we already know about breast cancer.”

Her lab is also seeking to develop a drug that actually uses this same pathway, hijacking it and turning it way up to toxic levels in order to kill the cells that way. “My project is studying the drug and seeing how exactly it kills the cells,” she reports, “trying to understand this better and why it works so well.” 


Story and photographs by: Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative

More: 6-8 Outreach, MCBees, Next Generation School, STEAM Studio, Women in STEM, 2018

For more I-STEM articles about STEAM Studio and Next Generation School, please see the following:


Mara Livezey interacts with the Science Social Café participants.




Nobel Project’s End-of-Year Zoom Bash Recaps Learning

February 1, 2022
The STEM Illinois Nobel Project held a special, end-of-the-year Zoom event celebrating its participating students’ achievements.
Full Story

It’s not magic, it’s physics

January 26, 2022
In Franklin STEAM Academy, Musical Magnetism program makes STEM fun, approachable.
Full Story

Program prepares STEM educators to teach all students

November 30, 2021
This summer, a group of educators gathered to learn about engaging STEM activities they can do with their students.
Full Story

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program

November 11, 2021
Undergrads get a taste of research through I-MRSEC’s REU program.
Full Story

Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp

November 1, 2021
Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp Incorporates Art, Design, Mechatronics, and Mentoring
Full Story

TechTogether Chicago to Redefine the Hacker Stereotype

July 10, 2021
New workshops that can help inspire students to pursue careers in technology..
Full Story

Aerospace Engineering Launches Virtual Summer Camps to Pique Students’ Interest in Aero.

July 2, 2021
Design an aircraft then watch it soar after launching it with a huge rubber band. Build a Mars lander to safely transport a real egg, then test the contraption by dropping it from a second story window.
Full Story

Undergrads Experience Materials Science Research Courtesy of the I-MRSEC REU

June 16, 2021
Ten undergraduate students are spending the summer of 2021 discovering what research is like.
Full Story

MatSE Afterschool Academy

MatSE Afterschool Academy

June 14, 2021
MatSE Afterschool Academy to Introduce Students to Materials Science and Beyond.
Full Story

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

June 14, 2021
Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest While Researching Task Collaboration.
Full Story

Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS

What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like?

May 25, 2021
NSBE’s Michaela Horn Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS, and What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like.
Full Story

Jenny Saves a Convertible.

Children’s-Book-Writing Duo/

May 19, 2021
Convertibles and Thunderstorms—Children’s-Book-Writing Duo on Their Way Thanks to Illinois Training and Encouragement from Mentors.
Full Story

Improve Learning in Engineering

Improve Learning in Engineering

May 17, 2021
Liebenberg Espouses Mini-Projects to Engage Students Emotionally, Improve Learning in Engineering.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

BIOE435 Capstone Projects

May 12, 2021
BIOE435 Capstone Projects - BIOE Seniors Use Knowledge/Skills to Problem Solve.
Full Story

Elani and Gonzalo shine a UV light on a rose that has absorbed a solution that has made it fluorescent.

Illinois Scientists Shine a (UV) Light on Fluorescence

May 7, 2021
What is fluorescence? What causes it?
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

HackIllinois 2021 “Rekindled Connections” With The Tech Community

May 5, 2021
Annual student hackathon HackIllinois with the aim of developing projects on current problems facing society.
Full Story

A Shane Mayer-Gawlik image of the Bridger Aurora, part of his Night Skies photography collection exhibited at the Art-Science Festival.

The Art-Science Festival

April 26, 2021
Illinois Art-Science Festival: Illuminating the Universe...from the Quantum World to the Cosmos.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World

April 22, 2021
Ready. Set. Go! Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World.
Full Story

HML 2021 Virtual Health

HML 2021 Virtual Health

April 19, 2021
Make-a-Thon Gives Citizen Scientists a Shot at Making Their Health-Related Innovations a Reality.
Full Story

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

April 7, 2021
I-MRSEC’s Music Video for EOH ’21 Plugs Graphene, 2D Materials
Full Story

Health Make-a-Thon Orientation

HML 2021 Health Orientation

March 30, 2021
HML 2021 Health Make-a-Thon Orientation Prepares Finalists for Competition.
Full Story

Andrea Perry shows Franklin students how to take apart the magnetic drawing board they received in their kit

Musical Magnetism

March 25, 2021
Musical Magnetism: Encouraging Franklin Middle Schoolers to Express Science Via the Arts.
Full Story

Carmen Paquette street performing.

Love of Science

March 9, 2021
Paquette Conveys Her Love of Science, Dance to Franklin STEAM Students Via Musical Magnetism.
Full Stroy

An Engineering Exploration participant exhibits the tower they built as part of the engineering challenge related to Civil Engineering

Engineering Exploration

March 2, 2021
SWE’s Engineering Exploration Outreach Lives Up to Its Name.

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

February 23, 2021
Helps Chicago Youngsters Progress Along the STEM Pipeline Toward Engineering.

Kathny Walsh

Kathy Walsh

February 17, 2021
On Her First Foray into STEAM, Kathy Walsh Acquaints Franklin Students with Microscopy, Haiku.

ChiS&E student

ChiS&E CPS Students

January 19, 2021
Illinois Undergrads Encourage ChiS&E CPS Students Toward Possible Careers in Engineering.

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

CISTEME365 Provides Year-Round PD/Community

January 4, 2021
to Illinois Teachers in Support of Informal STEM Education Efforts to Underserved Students.