Nora Sun, a 17-year-old senior at Walter Payton College Prep, has always been interested in math and science. But it wasn’t until she got to high school that she realized there were a lot of gender disparities in academia.
“These classes were male dominated, and I saw firsthand that there was a lack of intellectual spaces for females,” she says. “These important conversations should be open to everyone.”
Wanting to teach girls to be proactive thinkers and problem solvers in STEM, Sun founded the Talaria Summer Institute, a research program that pairs female and genderqueer students with a mentor to conduct a monthlong independent research project every July.
During the program, the mentees work one-on-one with a professional researcher to conduct science research from home on a topic of their choice. Some examples of Talaria projects include using the IBM quantum composer to study gravitational waves through quantum interference, metagenomic analyses of marine viruses from the South Florida coast, and using transition metal catalysts for CO2 reduction.
At the end of the program, participants present their research at the Talaria conference and receive a Talaria Scholar certificate. Their papers are reviewed and may be published in the annual edition of the appropriate Talaria journal.
Originally, these mentors were university researchers in the Chicagoland area only. However, the pandemic paved the way to scale the program and take it international.
To date, more than 400 teen girls have graduated from Talaria and collaborated with famous institutions such as MIT, Yale, NASA, NIH, University of Toronto and University of Edinburgh. Alumni of the program have gone on to attend prestigious universities like Princeton and Harvard.
Vania Amani, from Canada, was enrolled in the program last summer, researching the subject of antibiotic resistance and its detrimental future consequences.
“As I met with my mentor, I felt as though some weight had been lifted from my shoulders,” Amani says. “He reassured me that he would support me every step of the research process and that I would only need to try my best. Through our weekly meetings, he would give me numerous constructive comments as to how I can improve my writing and how to analyze certain sources.”
Sun says the program is perfect for those who are part of a minority group or have faced hardships in their academic journey, preventing them from reaching their full academic potential.
Rupinder Kaur, assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, is a Talaria mentor. As a strong proponent of women in STEM, when given the opportunity to become a mentor, he knew this was the right fit.
“I really enjoyed the process of being a Talaria mentor,” says Kaur. “Everything was well organized, right from the beginning of choosing and distributing the list of the mentees that aligned with my interests followed by matching me with the right one. My student was well-read and attentive to details. She was highly receptive to the critical feedback and incorporated it in the draft for improving writing quality and reading accessibility to the general audience.”
Sun has directed the program, which has a 13 percent acceptance rate, for the past three summers. Next summer, students will have the opportunity to live at the university they are paired with instead of working remotely.
It’s no surprise that Sun plans to attend college with a major in chemistry or biochemistry. She says that having the experience with Talaria helps prepare students for college – especially if they desire to go into a STEM field.
“Having Talaria on their resume allows them to get that additional research opportunity that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” says Sun. “It opens the doors for further opportunities and lets mentees bring the scientific research mindset into wherever their future takes them.”
To learn more or apply for this summer’s program, visit the Talaria Summer Institute.