For our “Greenpreneur Series”, which features alumni working in sustainability sectors, Nicole Nishizawa (Harvard College '19) interviewed alumna Sarah Weisberg. Sarah (Harvard College ’08) studied Biology & Linguistics, co-founded a women’s prison education program through the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. After obtaining a Master’s degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology, she joined BioBus, a New York based organization helping under-served communities learn science. Here she shares her journey after Harvard, the impactful work BioBus does to address accessible science education, and advice for pursuing work in science and social justice.
Nicole Nishizawa: How did Harvard shape your path to work in the social justice space? What has your journey been since graduating?
Sarah Weisberg: At Harvard, and later at the Weizmann Institute and at Princeton, I found it difficult to have access to so many resources – intellectual as well as material – while knowing that most people will never be able to imagine, let alone access, these resources. Over time, I became obsessed with figuring out how to bring outstanding educational experiences to people who might otherwise not be slotted for that in this lifetime.
I became obsessed with figuring out how to bring outstanding educational experiences to people.”
I chose Harvard in part because I was very impressed by the longstanding history, importance, diversity and depth of the community service programs housed at the Phillips Brooks House Association. I was engaged in social justice work throughout my time there, primarily through work with prison education programs. I co-founded and directed a program for undergrads to teach at the Women’s Resource Center, a facility for women convicted of drug-related offenses.
Harvard also provided me opportunities to develop as a scientist; after I graduated, I continued down an academic track and pursued a Masters in Life Sciences from the Weizmann Institute in Israel, focused on basic cell biology and phenomena that lead to neurodegeneration. I returned to the US and continued conducting research at Princeton. That period after college was the first time in my life when I was not engaged in social justice work explicitly at all – and I missed it terribly. One day, I searched on the internet “biology teaching volunteer New York City”, and by some cosmic alignment, I found the BioBus website. At the time, the organization was more or less one scientist (a brilliant biophysicist named Ben Dubin-Thaler), a vintage bus purchased on Craigslist, and a suite of donated research-grade microscopes.
I began working with Ben in 2010, traveling to public schools in low-income communities, first as a volunteer and then as a co-founding staff member. From the beginning we got this reaction:
When I saw expressions like that on the faces of students who are considered “problematic”, “disengaged” or “behaviorally challenged,” I knew we were on to something. When those same students said “I never liked science before but I love this,” and when they begged us to return the next day, and the day after, I knew that BioBus had the power to change lives. I have been working since 2010 to define, grow and sustain BioBus.
When those same students said, ‘I never liked science before, but I love this,’ and when they begged us to return the next day, and the day after, I knew that BioBus had the power to change lives.”
NN: Tell us about your most impactful course, professor, or involvement at Harvard.
SW: There are so many! But I often think about MCB 117, a course titled Experimental Neuroscience. That course gave me an experience with the process of science – how experiments are designed and, perhaps more importantly, how knowledge is generated. I will never in my life forget the moment I saw magnified and stained samples from a developing brain, genetically manipulated and chemically enhanced so that we could see the organization of the neurons that allow for the sensory experience of olfaction. Beautiful!
NN: What about social justice and science education drive your work with BioBus? How does the mission of BioBus work to address these issues?
SW: Spending all of that time in the lab, the questions I could not help but ask myself were, ‘What is the value of creating knowledge if it’s only accessible to a minute portion of the population? Isn’t knowledge creation meant to be for the benefit of all? And why are we as scientists competing so intensely to advance knowledge without putting nearly enough resources towards disseminating it?” I do believe that the scientific enterprise is fundamentally compromised if scientists only talk amongst themselves.
To be clear: science education, when done properly, is not only (or even mostly) about knowledge; rather, it is an avenue for the development of critical thinking and complex problem solving skills (as was true for me in MCB 117). These skills are broadly applicable and helping young students from under-resourced backgrounds learn to be creative, critical, curious thinkers is a form of empowerment.
To be clear: science education, when done properly, is not only (or even mostly) about knowledge; rather, it is an avenue for the development of critical thinking and complex problem solving skills.”
NN: BioBus has served over 500 schools and 200,000 students. Can you share an anecdotal moment from working with the BioBus project?
SW: When I think of highlight moments, I remember working with students from a school called Tompkins Square Middle School. We visit this school every year with our mobile lab, work with them on afterschool science projects, and judge their science fairs. Recently, we got thank you notes (from middle schoolers - that’s saying something!) – which make it clear that our work is having the impact we hope it does! One student wrote: “We are so grateful for your contribution to making the world better…Thank you for supporting our community and doing what you do. More importantly, it is not just about looking at exotic creatures through a microscope. It is about how someone ever thought of doing this, just for us and many more.”
NN: Why is science education so crucial for this young generation?
SW: Truly understanding the scientific process is extremely empowering. It turns you from a passive consumer of information to a critical participant in knowledge creation. Young people in under-resourced communities are least likely to be equipped with scientific tools and skills which transform them from consumers to producers of knowledge, which is why BioBus focuses on these communities.
On a slightly more practical level, I firmly believe that high-quality science education prepares young people for economic stability. I don’t believe that anyone truly knows what the ‘jobs of tomorrow’ will look like – but most predictions I’ve read posit that jobs will demand broad critical thinking skills, technical prowess of one form or another, and interpersonal abilities. Science empowers all of these.
Truly understanding the scientific process is extremely empowering. It turns you from a passive consumer of information to a critical participant in knowledge creation."
NN: There are a lot of students at Harvard and beyond that are especially passionate about science and social justice issues. What is your advice for these students looking to pursue careers in these fields?
SW: I’d say their timing is impeccable. Increasingly, scientists are becoming engaged in the social sectors – think of the various Marches for Science, the increase in scientists running for public office. Scientists understand that public support for science is critical to the continuation of the scientific enterprise on a number of levels. Such support depends on people being aware of what scientists actually do and why. Awareness of science is best built through experience.
As a result, the opportunities to build a career that combines social justice and science are growing. It’s not a traditional field and therefore the career paths are not clearly mapped out – be prepared to improvise. If you’re up for it, we’d love to have you join this work. Please reach out to me directly to talk more!
NN: What’s next for BioBus and your career path?
SW: BioBus is ready to grow. We know that students, teachers, parents and communities across NYC as well as in other cities are eager to have more hands-on science experiences. Despite being on the road every school day, we barely scratch the surface – this past year, we doubled our mobile lab fleet and we still have over 100 schools on a waiting list for next year. We also know that scientists are becoming increasingly excited about increasing their community engagement and public presence.
We want to grow to reach 240,000 students each year by 2023 – and continue to grow beyond that. If you are reading this and you’d like to be involved in BioBus as we grow, please reach out!
My personal role at BioBus is constantly changing and evolving – I’ve learned so many skills, from driving commercial vehicles to running multimillion dollar capital campaigns. Although this makes it hard for me to answer the seemingly simple question, “What do you do?” I am always excited to be a part of every next stage of development in this organization. It is a joy and privilege to get to think carefully about how to grow BioBus – growing not for the sake of it, but rather to have the maximum positive impact.