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From Lab to Limelight

An offhand comment from a friend at MIT changed my life.
December 15, 2005

When I arrived at MIT, I thought I had life figured out. Science was a joy. Music was my passion. I dabbled in literature and history, loved my Nintendo Game Boy, went dancing on occasion, and spent time with a few close friends. I grew up in a world where much of my time was spent staring into a microscope, helping kids with homework, or playing classics on the piano. By the time I graduated from high school, I had won state-wide, national, and international science and piano contests and had accumulated more than $40,000 in scholarships. It seemed clear that I was on the path to becoming a modern-day Marie Curie who tickled the ivories on the side.

On a Saturday night during my sophomore year, I was studying when a friend suggested a break. My friend turned on my TV and found the Miss America pageant. I had not seen the show in many years, and we decided to watch. At the end of the pageant, my friend said, “If she can be Miss America, why can’t you?” Luckily no one was there to take a snapshot of the MIT student with poor fashion sense, badly styled hair, and no makeup. I was skeptical.

Over the next few days my friend continued prodding me to participate, and I continued declining. The truth is, I was afraid of being stereotyped, of looking ridiculous, and perhaps most of all, of losing. Several days later, I checked my e-mail and found that my friend had signed me up for a pageant. I hesitantly decided to participate. I remember grumbling during the drive to the contest, not realizing that this was going to be one of the most important episodes of my life.

Although I did not win that first pageant, the experience changed me. By competing in the Miss America program, I earned $25,000 in scholarships and improved my leadership and public-speaking skills. I began to appreciate the importance of having creative ideas about ways to help people. I saw the need for the scientific community to become involved with improving students’ test scores and rekindling their waning interest in math and the sciences; I wanted to share my love of these subjects with those who needed confidence and inspiration. So in 2002 I started WhizKids – a nonprofit dedicated to improving students’ awareness of science and technology.

As I tried to involve the scientific and pageant communities in promoting math and science education, I was met with both respect and disdain. This wasn’t easy, but it made me realize the importance of having faith in my ideals.

Two years later, when I became Miss Massachusetts 2004, I took every opportunity to share my experiences with students, hoping to inspire them to follow their dreams. As Miss Massachusetts, I continued pursuing my goals and worked at the Edith Nourse Rogers VA hospital in Bedford, MA. My research there involved using bioanalytical techniques in the emerging field of metabolomics, which could result in faster, more accurate diagnoses for many diseases. My particular research was directed at modeling the signaling and process control of small molecules in neurodegenerative disorders.

When not in the lab, I spoke with audiences that included politicians, scientists, and teachers and realized that being an MIT graduate and Miss Massachusetts gave me a platform from which to encourage people to help better math and science education in the United States. I have received many notes from students in which they describe their increased interest in math and science after participating in my WhizKids program. Numerous organizations, colleges, and universities around the country have partnered with WhizKids. I have had the opportunity to address the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the state senate. Also, the list of staff members and volunteers for WhizKids continues to grow.

I am pursuing my goal of becoming a research scientist, but I have not lost sight of the need for involvement in education, politics, and community service. Helping assist and encourage the students of tomorrow in subjects including science and engineering may be one of the most lasting contributions I can make. I hope that others in the sciences and in academia share that sentiment.

Erika Ebbel ‘04 majored in chemistry with a minor in music. She is a doctoral candidate in biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine and also intends to obtain an MD. She stepped down as Miss Massachusetts in June 2005.

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