Bringing Science Home: Ph.D. Candidate Tiffany Hamm works to expand access to STEM

Tiffany Hamm

Tiffany Hamm, a fourth-year science education doctoral student, previously taught earth sciences in her hometown of the Bronx, New York. She chose the School of Education to pursue a Ph.D. Because she wanted to do more in this area. She says making science available is key, both in her pursuit of a PhD and for the next generation.

“Giving science back to the community in a tangible way can help students of color and students from underrepresented backgrounds gain attention,” Hamm says. “We need to continue to show the different faces in science, continue to diversify the field of science, and diversify the images and contributions of scientists.”

Already holds a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Science from Stony Brook University and a Master’s degree in Marine Science. In Educating Urban Adolescents from Long Island University-Brooklyn Campus, an important research interest is in urban science education and finding ways to make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics more accessible to school-going students in urban communities.

In June 2020, Hamm shared her insights with TEDxSyracuse University, giving a lecture on urban narratives in science education. The School of Education met with Hamm to learn her story and the steps she is taking as a teacher to help students aspire to become scientists.

What prompted you to study science and get a PhD? in this field?

Since I can remember, I wanted to study marine biology. Growing up, I was known as one of the smart kids, but I was also a bit of a rebel because I was never in class. When I went, I easily passed my exams because I knew the material intuitively.

The institution did not feel welcome to me, and that was my battle as a student. I understood that I have a mind. It wasn’t very environmentally friendly to me. After high school, I first attended community college, transferred to a public university and then earned a bachelor’s degree in marine sciences.

I came back to New York City and wondered what to do with my degree. I worked in an aquarium for a few months. Then, by chance, I got an interview to be a secretary at a school. When reviewing my resume, the manager asked, “With all this knowledge, why would you want to be my secretary?” I just need a job. “I’d rather you be my science teacher,” she said.

Once I got into teaching, life went back to a full cycle. It felt like an opportunity to bring the flag home. The students were attracted to me because I was able to connect with them, and we were from the same hometown. I studied for a few years, but after a while I wanted to do more in this field.

What drew you to Syracuse University and made it a good fit?

The high school I worked at did college tours and I was asked to escort one of them. We visited Syracuse. At the time, I was willing to put in more effort and was looking for different programs that would cater to my science education.

Syracuse remembered, and checked to see if they offered a program. I called Dr. Sharon Dotter, and we had a really good phone conversation. She invited me to visit the school and connected me with other students to get their point of view. When it came to my entire process, I felt that Syracuse was most welcoming. I had phone conversations with the other chairs, but no one invited me to the campus or met other students.

What does it mean to be a Holmes scholar?

In academia, I always felt that I had to pretend to be someone in order to achieve success. If I don’t conform to the template, behaviorally, I won’t be successful. I didn’t know what it meant to be a Holmes scholar. It was very refreshing as it caters to underrepresented groups of teachers and educators.

When I got to the first conference and saw everyone in the room I saw people who looked like me. There was a lot of acting. Representation was not only the meaning of people of color in academia but also women of color who want to have fun and be real and yet still be educated and professional.

Being able to see these women navigate those waters was inspiring – a moment when I felt like I belonged here and there was a space for me here. When I’m with Holmes Scholars, I feel like I’m with family and that I have personal agency, as well as the trust and support to really be who I am.

What are your best memories of university?

Tiffany Hamm presents as a Holmes scholar

Tiffany Hamm will present as a Holmes scholar at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education in March 2022.

I improved my public speaking here with a TED talk and presented with the Future Professor program. I have also done a study abroad in Kenya. When we talk about countries in Africa, we always talk about Africa and how it is one of Africa. But this is a stereotype. Seeing different cultures and how different people live was amazing. I’m glad I had a first-hand view and a chance to go visit.

A high school I visited had its own working garden. The school chefs prepared the lunch they ate every day and picked from the garden. I was impressed seeing how sustainable it is and it made me wonder why we can’t get it here.


How can black women and those from underrepresented groups be recruited, mentored, and retained in STEM fields?

I think it all boils down to making science more accessible and tangible to different minds. At first, it was rare to see blacks – black women – in science. When I was a teacher, I made intentional efforts to use slides to bring in black scholars and highlight their contributions.

I think it’s also about letting students feel a sense of belonging. Science can seem really abstract. When you have concrete examples, like a really crazy tornado in New Orleans, we can talk to the class about the conditions and why that hurricane happened. We can ask, “What created the infrastructure?” We can discuss new construction techniques and other preventive measures.

The introduction of real-world projects into scientific phenomena can connect science to the student’s life. This gives a different lens for viewing. It is no longer out of context. It is not elitist.

Story by Ashley Kang ’04, G’11 (Proud MA Graduate of Higher Education Program)

Learn more about PhD programs in the College of Education, including science education, or contact Speranza Migliore, Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions and Employment, at [email protected] or 315.443.2505.

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