Jean Fan '09 is the founder and creator of cuSTEMized.org, a not-for-profit initiative that encourages girls to envision themselves in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) by providing customized STEM-related motivational books and goodies. The main focus of cuSTEMized is the Little Book of Big Dreams, a book that can be customized with a girl's name and likeness to help her visualize herself in STEM careers. Ms. Fan recently spoke with Ted Jou '99 about developing her idea, raising funds through Kickstarter, and how Blair teachers have supported her along the way.
First, let us know what you have done since leaving Blair. What did you study in college? What is your focus in graduate school?
After Blair, I went to Johns Hopkins University where I studied biomedical engineering and applied mathematics & statistics. I am currently at Harvard University doing a PhD in Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics. My research is focused on developing statistical and computational methods for analyzing single cell data to understand cancer heterogeneity and evolution to potentially enable precision medicine in cancer treatment.
When did you first get the idea for cuSTEMized?
I’ve had the idea to write a children’s book encouraging girls in STEM for awhile because I’ve always felt like that was something I needed. But I finally got the motivation to follow through and turn my ideas into reality when I started graduate school.
When I started graduate school, I was the only girl in my program that year. In an attempt to find more potential female friends, I got involved with the Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering student group where I learned more about the leaky pipeline issue and unconscious bias. I started volunteering at Science Club for Girls to teach second graders about STEM and realized that many girls doubted their STEM abilities, particularly math. So I started cuSTEMized as a non-profit to encourage girls in STEM by providing free, personalized STEM-motivational ebooks such as the Little Book of Big Dreams.
From my own experiences, I had a very hard time during my senior year of college. I decided to take a graduate level course on machine learning and was one of a handful of girls. The professor was also female, which in theory would be encouraging. But I often found myself doubting my own abilities and telling myself that I was not good enough to be in STEM because I wasn’t like her: I wasn’t outgoing enough, I didn’t think this material was as easy as she claimed it was, I wasn’t this or I wasn't that. I thought that maybe STEM was for girls, but only some exceptional girls, and I wasn’t one of them. But then I realized: screw that, STEM is for everyone and anyone interested in pursuing it.
I wanted to give girls a personalized message that YOU and specifically YOU can pursue STEM. A personalized book seemed like a great medium to communicate that message.
There are already other personalized books for kids in the market. But when I was doing my market research, I noticed that all the personalized books for girls were about ‘My Own Princess Fairy Tale Adventure’ or something while the personalized books for boys were much more career oriented. A personalized STEM career book for girls was lacking, so I wanted to address that lack by creating the Little Book of Big Dreams.
Why did you decide to use Kickstarter? Why do you think you were so successful at raising money?
Kickstarter is one of many crowd-source fundraising platforms. I chose Kickstarter in part because it is one of the biggest/better known/trusted platforms. There is also a specific category dedicated to children’s books. Unlike other fundraising platforms, Kickstarter requires a product at the end, which is what we were intending on producing. So it seemed like a reasonable fit.
Our ability to reach and surpass our goal amount I think in part can be attributed to networking. Many of the donors are Blair teachers and Harvard professors. But more importantly, I think there is a need for a product like this that is currently not available in the mass market. And many parents donated because they wanted to get a book for their daughters.
How did you decide on the structure of the book? How did you choose which professions to highlight?
I wanted the book to be a bed time story that a girl could read to herself with the help of her parents. I think it’s very empowering to repeatedly say your name and how you can do something; it’s like a pep talk. I wanted to highlight subjects that young girls may already be familiar with through school such as chemistry, physics, biology, and mathematics and just expand on why these subjects make cool professions. Of course, as a computer scientist, I wanted to highlight computer science. A lot of parents I spoke to about STEM careers seem to believe that a STEM career involves only working in a university or government facility at a bench with pipettes or a chalkboard, so I wanted to highlight a few other careers like engineering, agronomy, and meteorology that are more field and industry-oriented. Of course, to highlight the translational aspects of STEM, I wanted to include doctors and veterinarians.
Is there a story behind the raincloud and rainbow pages about facing and overcoming challenges? Why did you include those pages at the end?
I think it’s important to explain to all kids, not necessarily just girls who are interested in pursuing STEM, that it can be difficult! Experiments will fail! Things won’t work out! But that doesn’t mean you’re stupid. That just means you're trying to do something really hard and worthwhile. It’s important to emphasize the need for perseverance in anticipation of these inevitable failures and challenges. I hope that the story will help girls understand that even if things are rough and tough and even if they stumble and fumble, it’s okay. Take a deep breath, step back, and when you’re ready, try again. And you will make it through. (I still have to tell myself that some times in graduate school!)
Fellow Blair alumnus, Curry Chern '09, and I wrote the text in the book. I created the art. Additional Blair alumni including Elizabeth Fang '09 and Mihai Sirbu '09 helped with editing and proof-reading the book.
When did you finish the book? How long did it take from beginning to end?
In terms of timelines, we started writing and graphics in June of 2013. The book was basically done by the time our Kickstarter ended in December 2013. We then had to build the website, print test books, and fulfill all the Kickstarter orders, which progressed on schedule and launched in June 2014.
What is next for cuSTEMized?
Currently, cuSTEMized is working to translate the Little Book of Big Dreams into various languages. We are also expanding our outreach program to be able to go into schools and after school programs to provide free printed personalized books to students. Eventually, we do hope to release more personalizable books. So stay tuned!
Did you draw on any of your Blair Magnet experiences in creating cuSTEMized?
The Blair Magnet experience definitely gave me a better perspective on what all of these STEM careers entail. The relatively early exposure to STEM, particularly computer science, definitely gave me a leg up over my peers and has helped me establish a sense of competency and confidence in my abilities.
Mr. Kaluta has also been really supportive of the entire process so I’ve definitely drawn on my Blair Magnet network in the creation and sharing of cuSTEMized. Blair teachers, Ms. Ragan, Ms. Dyas, and Ms. Deckelman in addition to Mr. K, have also been very supportive! So keep in touch with your teachers, Blair Magnet!
If there is a little girl in your life who would enjoy a customized Little Book of Big Dreams, visit cuSTEMized.org to create a personalized eBook for free! You can also order spiral-bound, softcover, and hardcover books that make wonderful gifts!
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