MIT Professor Paula T. Hammond was honored as Scientist of the Year at the Harvard Foundation’s Albert Einstein Science Conference last Friday.
On Saturday, Hammond discussed her materials science research with hundreds of elementary school students for the second part of the two-day annual conference.
In the past 20 years, the conference, which focuses on advancing women and minorities in science, has honored notables such as Mario Molina, 1995 Nobel prizewinner in chemistry, and mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante, the inspiration for the film “Stand and Deliver.”
Hammond, a chemical engineer, said the conference was particularly significant to her because of the time she spent at Harvard as a postdoctoral researcher and as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow.
Hammond spoke to the elementary school students about the many potential applications of her research on directed assembly of polymers, including fabricating remotely-controlled drug chips to treat diseases.
Along with Hammond, student volunteers gave scientific demonstrations and helped organize the event.
“A lot of volunteers really got into it, and I think some of them formed friendships with a lot of the kids,” said Justin K. Banerdt ’11, an intern at the Foundation.
Away from the hubbub of the conference, Hammond commented on how being both a minority and a woman scientist has affected her work.
“This is one of those things that you carry with you, and you really just make it a point not to [let it] be a barrier,” she said.
She spoke about the importance of mentors and positive guidance, citing how her parents instilled in her a can-do attitude.
She added that despite her best efforts to ignore how others perceived her as a minority scientist, at times she had to face the reality that as a minority or a woman scientist she might be held to different standards.
“You have to really achieve at an extremely high level to receive the level of notice that some of your colleagues might achieve,” she said.
Hammond also said her progression through science was guided largely by the mentors she found, from her high school chemistry teacher to some of her college professors.
Hammond said she is glad to both have an impact on the children she met, as well as to be a role model for them.
Professor of Neurology S. Allen Counter, director of the conference, said the event has a lasting impact on the children.
According to Counter, some of the participants in the program have later enrolled in Harvard College.
Hammond agreed that such programs are helpful for a young child’s scientific exploration.
“You need someone to light that spark,” she said.