Researcher finds passion for science, not grades, key to STEM career

Remy Dou

Remy Dou

Remy Dou always dreamed of a science career. That dream, Remy hoped, would be realized at Harvard. He applied. He never heard back. Not even a courtesy rejection letter.

Dou enrolled in his second-choice school and stayed there for a semester but it wasn’t the right fit. He found a home at FIU. He finished his bachelor’s degree. He became a biology teacher in Miami. He wasn’t done.

Next week, Dou graduates with a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, after dedicating his research to understanding why college students abandon careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

As an educator, Dou wanted students to develop a passion for science.

“I loved it. I just loved it,” he said. “I love teaching kids and I looked for grants to get them cool stuff. We built a greenhouse at one school, designed rockets and flew them.”

After eight years in the classroom, Dou moved on. For a time, he worked for the White House developing education programs for minority students in STEM.

Still, he often wondered why students often gave up on promising STEM careers. Were the subjects too hard? Were the teaching methods questionable? Did students not believe in themselves? To find answers, he returned to FIU, the nation’s largest producer of STEM degrees for Hispanics.

“When you start in your program you think ‘I’m going to solve this huge problem,’ said Dou, a Cuban-American. “And then you realize you probably didn’t solve the problem – you just learned about this tiny portion of the problem.”

STEM careers are getting lots of attention now. They’re high-paying. They’re in-demand. In fact, a 2016 STEM index produced by defense giant Raytheon and U.S. News and World Report found that while universities had boosted the number of students earning STEM degrees, there were some 230,246 STEM jobs left unfilled.

Minorities and women are underrepresented in STEM fields. According to the index: Only 8 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields were awarded to women. The number of black students who earned STEM degrees dropped by 15 percent year-over-year. The one bright spot was the number of STEM degrees awarded to Hispanic students rose by 13 percent.

For years, Dou collaborated with his mentors, professors Eric Brewe, Zahra Hazari and Laird Kramer of the STEM Transformation Institute. Together, they discovered students are more likely to stick with a STEM major if their peers and their professors offered recognition and helped students see themselves as biologists, physicists or chemists.

The number of As they earned made no difference.

“This is the part that attracts me to this career – that it’s not academic performance that predicts a student’s persistence in science careers,” he said. “It’s these factors related more to student’s beliefs, and attitudes and emotion surrounding science.”

With this research under his belt, Dou reflects on his early days as a high school science teacher. He says he doesn’t know if he was the best teacher he could have been. Part of that came from his youth and inexperience right out of college. What he thinks de did right was building tight bonds with his students.

“I just knew that as a teacher I wanted students to feel interested in what I was teaching,” he said. “I was more focused that they got engaged in the lesson and what we were doing, I was not so focused on whether they got an A in my class.”

Dou now plans to further his research through a post-doctoral appointment and eventually become a professor in South Florida.

Not long ago, Dou was sorting through old papers in his parent’s home. He came across an envelope with the Harvard emblem. As it turns out, the college had responded. He had been accepted. His parents, fearing the financial costs of a Harvard education, thought the dream was out of reach. They hid the letter hoping to protect Remy from the frustrations of his reality, a decision they have long regretted. But today, Dou says he isn’t fazed by it. He knows his parents were acting out of love. And he found his calling at FIU, a place that allowed him to grow as a scientist and evolve into an educator.