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These chemists are breaking down barriers to make STEM careers accessible to youth who deserve a chance

Nuclear chemist, Clarice Phelps and her colleague, Candice Halbert are bringing STEM education to Knoxville, TN, through their nonprofit, YO-STEM.

These chemists are breaking down barriers to make STEM careers accessible to youth who deserve a chance
Cover Image Source: Twitter | Oak Ridge Lab

Two dedicated chemists are working jointly to prove the importance of making education accessible. Clarice Phelps and her colleague Candice Halbert, work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and spend their free time providing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to underserved youth in Knoxville through a nonprofit called YO-STEM that Halbert founded seven years ago.

Clarice Phelps, 41, a nuclear chemist, made history in 2016 by becoming the first Black woman to participate in the discovery of an element: No. 117, or tennessine, which now holds a place on the periodic table. Phelps hopes that her visibility and efforts with YO-STEM will inspire Black girls to believe that they, too, can excel in science. 



The National Science Foundation reports that Black women account for just 2% of all scientists and engineers. "Being a Black woman in science is being seen and unseen at the same time," Phelps explained, in a conversation with People Magazine. "People see you because you stand out, but they un-see you because they don't think you should be there—some may not see you as being credible or worthy. But I'm supposed to be exactly where I'm at. And I'm leaving a legacy for whoever is coming next."

Halbert, who is 42 years old, adds, "Exposing youth to more diverse individuals allows them to pursue these different careers. It's a two-way street: We're preparing these students so they can take our place—to hire them and watch them grow."



Phelps and Halbert remember a time not long ago when children, when asked to draw their idea of a scientist, would depict an older white man. However, Phelps says that "middle schoolers are drawing more women now. It's a step," she adds. Both women attribute their interest in science and mathematics to their beloved childhood teachers, who opened their eyes to the possibilities these fields offered.

"When they're young, they typically think science jobs are doctors," says Halbert. "We're teaching kids about intellectual engineering, biochemistry. We only want to be what we know and what we see, and by exposing our youth to more diverse individuals and fields, that allows them the opportunity to want to even pursue these different careers."


Phelps agrees, saying, "It's not even that they have to choose this career field, but letting them know it's an option—and a fun one!—is important. There is so much you can do with a STEM career." Both women are currently pursuing their PhDs while raising children and hope to expand YO-STEM to children in other cities throughout the United States in the near future.

"I hope by the time our students get to where Candice and I are today, they won't have to go through what we've been through," says Phelps, "because those glass ceilings will have been broken, and the pieces swept away."

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