NYAS Mentorship: Cosmic Connection from Day One

By Infosys Foundation USA | October 10, 2017 

Sharing a fascination for computing, Alison Domzalski (instagram @alisonsiris) was paired as a mentor to Shannice Araujo Arrechea via New York Academy of Science’s Next Scholars Program. With support from Infosys Foundation USA, the Academy created a specialized version of Next Scholars for undergraduate women studying in the United States with an interest in computer science (CS). It has offered undergraduates layered mentorship, 35 hours of online programming, access to educational resources, career guidance and opportunities, and a network of like-minded peers and mentors.

Shannice Araujo Arrechea, a junior at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is majoring in CS and has a variety of field interests including criminal justice, building, and creating things---maybe working one day for the FBI, Google, or NASA! She got her start in coding while she was still in high school as a junior in a robotics class where she was only one of three girls in the entire class. Robotics was very new to her and she persevered to fully understand and complete the tasks, staying after school to finish a task with the teacher. She admits she did not do well on tests, but she loved working on the robot. It was this class where she started coding, and learning more about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) topics.

During the summer of her senior year of high school, Shannice was accepted into an immersion program called Girls Who Code (GWC) with Twitter Boston in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She joined 19 other girls interested in computer science where they created projects each week, were visited by engineers from amazing tech companies, including Twitter employees. Towards the end of the program, the GWC curriculum director, Ashley Gavin, would always tell the girls that they were going to be with Girls Who Code forever.

In practical terms this has meant staying in touch through a newsletter and a special “Girls Who Code Loop” app for all GWC graduates which led her to the Next Scholars Program (NSP) opportunity. 

Shannice applied and then was accepted into NSP, where she then created a profile, completed training modules, and sought out a mentor based on mutual interests. Shannice found Alison through the mentor list, learned about her background, and was determined to have her as a mentor.

Alison Domzalski, is a former forensic biologist with a passion for teaching and photography. Alison’s current work involves an interesting mix of organic chemistry, microbiology, molecular biology and bioinformatics as she is pursuing her PhD in Biochemistry at CUNY Hunter College with Dr. Akira Kawamura. This work involves exploring molecular communications in nature to better understand how bacteria cultured from medicinal plants “talk” to each other---and will hopefully lead to the discovery of novel secondary metabolites that could be beneficial to people (i.e. antibiotics or anticancer compounds).

Although each are in different fields, earlier this year Alison became a NSP mentor to Shannice. Alison and Shannice share computing in common to get their work done. Shannice is learning about several coding languages and Alison is currently learning R, the open source programming language and software environment. The R language is widely used among statisticians and data miners for developing statistical software and data analysis. She will also be using the bioinformatics pipeline called QIIME (Quantitative Insights into Microbial Ecology) analysis to interpret raw DNA sequences of bacterial populations.

As part of the Next Scholars Program, the women are in constant communication daily by WhatsApp and weekly by Skype. Through a series of NYAS learning modules, the pair discovered they share the same communication styles: action and process. Alison explains, “We are both pragmatic, get-it-done types! Maybe this explains why our connection was cosmic from day one!” 

Their very first Skype call was described by Shannice as “absolutely amazing”. These Skype calls have become a vital link for Shannice to receive guidance from Alison. The most impactful thing that she has learned from her mentor is that there is not just one way of tackling an opportunity or accomplishing something. There needs to be a game plan, regardless of how big or small the opportunity is, in order for Shannice to succeed in achieving what she wants out of it.

Shannice said, “Alison is such an amazing woman and someone I look up to. We connect so well and have the same viewpoints on everything we discuss. She has helped me to learn that the dream that I have and my career goals are unlimited. There really is no finish line or award that could be fulfilling enough for me to sit back and say I have done enough. I am always looking to improve. The sky is just the beginning.”

Alison points out that, “Shannice is a very motivated young woman always looking for the next opportunity where she can excel and apply herself. She is passionate about bringing technology to her home country of Puerto Rico by teaching computer science to schoolchildren.”

Early on in the mentoring relationship, Shannice was accepted into a summer program called Make School for app development. She was awarded the New York Academy of Sciences 2017 Global Stem Alliance Travel Scholarship for a video she produced about the gender imbalance in computer science that she is working to change. As the mentorship is a long-term project in the pipeline, Alison explains “I keep track of our conversations by email summaries and use email to proofread Shannice’s applications, cover letters and résumés. I am very impressed with what I have seen from my mentee over these five months!”

Shannice concludes: “Through this Next Scholars Program from the New York Academy of Sciences, I have grown so much and met so many other students from all over the world who have the same drive in wanting to change the world of tech. This program has been the greatest opportunity that I have been so honored and grateful to be a part of.”