Lab Coat Confidential: Deep Diving into STEAM with Melissa, Our New Team Member

It’s been an exciting month at FirstHand.  Temperatures are dropping, fall programs have kicked off, and we just picked up a big award.

And…we have a new team member!  Our new Program Facilitator, Melissa Kurman, joins FirstHand after completing her Master’s degree in biology at California State University-Northridge.  Along with her biology expertise, Melissa brings wide-ranging teaching experience to the FirstHand Lab.  In grad school, she co-founded a middle school STEM club for girls, and has led undergraduates and elementary schoolers alike through science labs.

Melissa’s quickly getting up to speed since she started two weeks ago, and is leading several Polymer Play classes this fall. Read on to learn about her love of the ocean, the importance of STEAM to her career in science, and more!

Melissa, what brought you to FirstHand?
I spent the last two years at marine biology graduate school in Los Angeles, but realized about halfway in that I was more interested in a career in STEM outreach.  I also wanted to come back to Philadelphia, so I’m really excited that I’m here.

Lets hear about your research in grad school!
For my master’s degree I looked at green kelp, which is a marine alga that grows up to two feet a day — it’s pretty cool — and how it responds to warming.  It’s an important species in California oceans and a lot of them are dying off. So I did a lot of SCUBA diving and looked at its early life history stages and how it would fare in warming conditions.

Why do you think STEAM is cool?
I think it’s easy for scientists to focus on one part of that acronym. For me, I was only in the “S” — I was only involved with science. But once I started doing research, I realized I was also an engineer, and a designer, and I had to be an artist to make my work look presentable. And I think it’s cool to notice that you can’t really do one part of the acronym without pulling from other fields within the STEAM bubble.

Youve only been here two weeks, but what are some memorable moments from the lab so far?
I got to make my own bioplastic, which was pretty cool, and something that I wish I’d gotten to do as a student. And I’ve enjoyed working with the students one-on-one, because I’ll be working with most of them all year.

Whats something that youve learned, or thats surprised you, from your first week of teaching at FirstHand?
I’m surprised that some of the kids don’t realize how smart they are. I’m really excited to see their confidence grow.

What do you like to do outside of the lab?
I like backpacking, yoga, and trying new restaurants in Philadelphia. Vic Sushi Bar is my favorite — it’s super cheap and the best sushi I’ve ever had!

As a curious kid
…I always loved the ocean, and I used to try to think about coral reefs and dolphins before I fell asleep so I would dream about the ocean. It never worked (laughs).

Whos been your biggest role model?
My family.  I didn’t really realize it until I was older, but my parents and my sister always inspired me to take risks.  They never questioned what I was doing. My older sister’s a scientist, too.  I really followed in her footsteps.

What advice would you give to an aspiring biologist or ecologist?
Get involved in research as soon as possible! I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t do undergrad research, because so many opportunities opened up. I went on a deep sea research cruise, I’ve gone to French Polynesia, and that’s all because I sent an obnoxious amount of emails to a professor I wanted to work with.

If you could go on a field trip anywhere in time or space, where would you go?
To the deep sea, for sure. So whether I’m in a submersible or if I have superpowers and can breathe underwater and don’t get cold…I would love to help with that exploration. I would be in total awe.