The power of good mentors

(From left) V. Celeste Carter, ATE program manager, helps Jin Kim Montclare select questions from the audience at the ATE Principal Investigators Conference. (Photos: James Tkatch)

As she shared the promising results of her biomaterials research, Jin Kim Montclare dazzled her audience at the 2017 Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigators Conference with stories about the educators who mentored her and her “pay it forward” activities.

Montclare’s efforts to encourage girls and minority students to “love STEM” led to the creation of Lewis Dots, a digital chemical molecule app, then the company inSchool Apps, and entrepreneurial initiatives at New York University’s (NYU) Tandon School of Engineering, where she is an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Montclare launched inSchool Apps with then-graduate student Carlo Yuvienco, with assistance from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. I-Corps teaches researchers about lean startup methodologies and provides mentoring to help them commercialize their discoveries.

This year, Montclare received an NSF grant to start an I-Corps site at NYU to help students start companies based on their novel STEM ideas.

The female NYU students, who participated in the program this summer, indicated that the potential to create something that benefits society appeals to them. A large number of the men and women also listed on a survey that the potential to control their own work schedules is an appealing aspect of STEM entrepreneurship.

V. Celeste Carter, co-lead of NSF’s ATE program, encouraged the ATE principal investigators to have their students compete in the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC). The competition encourages STEM entrepreneurship among community college students and uses the same lean startup methodologies as I-Corps.

Interested students should form teams and register now. The application deadline is February 14.

Set on a STEM career path

Beginning with her high school chemistry teacher Ihor Szkolar, Montclare’s PowerPoint slides included photos of her mentors at Fordham University, Rockefeller University, Yale University and California Institute of Technology. The child of Korean immigrants, Montclare has received numerous awards as a young researcher.

“I had all these people who were behind me and helped me continue on this path. Without these people I don’t think I would be standing here and speaking to you at a conference like this,” she said.

2017 ATE Principal Investigators Conference: Take ATE innovations to scale

“Give back and pay it forward to inspire the next generation,” Montclare urged educators who have received ATE grants to test their ideas to improve technician education, the business and industry leaders who are their ATE partners, and the 62 students of ATE programs who participated in the conference this week in Washington, D.C.

Two-year college educators have leadership roles in ATE centers and projects. Their deliverables include model STEM curriculum and outreach programs, as well as professional development for secondary school and college faculty.

Mixing disciplines to learn more

Montclare’s professional network is intentionally multi-disciplinary to facilitate her NYU lab’s engineering of artificial proteins to control disease processes. During her presentation on Wednesday, Montclare described the nano-scale protein manipulation she and her graduate students have done to develop treatments for breast cancer, osteoarthritis and diabetes-related wounds.

“I really think that in order to achieve new and interesting science you have to be willing to interact in a in a multi-disciplinary group. You learn a lot more. As an educator you’re a life-long learner, and it’s always wonderful to learn from other disciplines,” she said.

Jin Kim Montclare shares her steps to success.

From these experiences, she shared a few other lessons:

  • Rather than listen to naysayers, “have selective hearing and just put your nose to the ground and work hard.”
  • “Surround yourself with people who you would like to learn from — who you think are doing the smartest things and the coolest things in the world. And you want them to lift you up and help you. So seek your mentors.”
  • “Seek help. If there is something you do not know how to solve, find people to help you solve that and collaborate. I have found that one type of discipline cannot solve the complicated problems of drug delivery and medicine. I need help, and I’m happy to say, ‘I need help.’ I go out to my colleagues, and say ‘What do you think?’ and we collaborate.”
  • Think of failure as a step toward new understanding. “I don’t actually view it as failure. I view it as a continuum of learning.”

Montclare ended her speech with an unusual expression of gratitude: Her final slide listed the names of students and colleagues who are involved in her research and STEM career recruitment initiatives, and the financial supporters of her work including NSF, other federal agencies and non-profit organizations.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
Madeline Patton is an education writer based in Ohio.