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Girl Scouts ruling the world of science

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Mackenzie Renfrow, 13, left, holds the end of a roller coaster project as her teammates tape it together, during the TechnoQuest STEM event held Saturday in the ECU Science and Technology Building. (Juliette Cooke/The Daily Reflector)

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Monday, March 12, 2018

Technology has brought about so much change to how people live in recent years, it is almost impossible to imagine what the next great innovation will be.

The Girls Scouts wants its members making those discoveries. 

More than 140 girls from across eastern North Carolina gathered at East Carolina University’s Science and Technology Building Saturday to try out some of the skills needed to pursue those new frontiers during TechnoQuest.

The daylong event showcased a multitude of careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, allowing girls to work with women already in those fields.

“It’s good to get girls thinking about science. It’s good to give them hands-on experiences,” said Desmine Burton, program director with Girl Scouts-North Carolina Coastal Pines, which hosted the event.

The scouts participated in multiple workshops held in lab settings, undertaking experiments and activities that promoted inventiveness, creative thinking and teamwork. The sessions explored topics such as chemistry, physics, computer technology, engineering and life sciences. Each scout attended three separate sessions.

“We want to create an awareness of STEM fields and help expand STEM Girl Scout programs in this area,” Burton said.

Mackenzie Renfrow, 13, and Isabella Mayorga, 12, both members of Pitt County’s Troop 876, worked with other girls to tape a flexible track to overhead beams as part of Roller Coaster Ridge, a challenge to construct a roller coaster.

Saturday was Renfrow’s second time participating in TechnoQuest and Mayorga’s first.

“It shows you girls can do stuff even if you think they can’t,” said Mayorga, a sixth grader at Hope Middle School.

“It’s a fun event,” Renfrow said. “I chose the (projects) that I would enjoy the most. The ones I thought were interesting.”

Renfrow said she wants to go into the medical field, either studying to become a nurse or a doctor. However, the three sessions she attended with Mayorga — the roller coaster challenge, building a car out of Legos and a design class — all fell in the field of engineering. Renfrow’s mom, Misty, said she has signed up for a lot of science and math classes when she starts high school next year.

“I still have a few years before I decide,” said Renfrow, an eighth-grader at A.G. Cox Middle School.

Katie Goetz, 12, also a member of Troop 876, started the day in the session presented by University of North Carolina Wilmington’s MarineQuest Ghost (net) Busters. She also participated in the DNA extraction project.

Goetz, a sixth-grader at A.G. Cox, wants to be a marine biologist. The Ghost (net) Busters session uses a 56-foot inflatable replica of a North Atlantic Right Whale to present a program on how lost fishing nets can harm sea life. She later pulled out tiny bits of DNA from a crushed strawberry using a solution of alcohol and detergent.

Jitka Virag, an associate professor in the Department of Physiology at the Brody School of Medicine, is researching how EphrinA1-Fc protein preserves the integrity of heart muscle cells and might reverse tissue damage in cardiovascular disease. Her work is included in STAT Madness, an event sponsored by the national publication STAT. It seeks to highlight innovations in science and medicine.

On Saturday, Virag helped the girls with the DNA extraction as a member of Graduate Women in Science or GWIS.

“It’s thrilling that they are having fun with what they are doing,” she said. “I hope they go home and want to do more of it. We need people who have the creativity and energy. There’s so much we don’t know and so much we need to know. Hopefully they’ll want to help us try and figure it out.”

There are still many societal pressures that discourage girls and young women from pursuing sciences, Virag said. But as a researcher and mom, Virag said tells young women that she wouldn’t be as happy doing science if she wasn’t happy in other aspects of her life and visa versa.

“I have a wonderful family that I adore. Raising children and watching how they learn and helping them learn is valuable in helping me educate others,” she said. And it’s pretty great to see how her children react to her work.

“My daughter came home the other day and wanted me to speak at their career day. She’s a sixth-grader at Winterville Charter Academy,” Virag said. “It’s so heartening to me that she wants me to be there for something like this and she excited to tell her classmates that her mom’s coming to talk about the science she does.”

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.

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