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Influential Teacher Helps Shape MSU Microbiologist's Past, Present & Future

Kayla Conner working in her lab
Alec Gerstenberger

A Michigan State University scientist is determined to increase the number of women and girls going into STEM fields. Kayla Conner is a microbiologist. She says she wouldn’t be the doctoral student she is today if it weren’t for her high school chemistry teacher, Ms. Hardin.

In our partnership with Michigan State University's Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program, we are featuring the stories of student scientists. Here’s Kayla’s story.

Kayla Conner conducting research
Credit Alec Gerstenberger / WKAR-MSU
MSU scientist Kayla Conner conducts research in a lab.

Kayla: I’m Kayla Conner. I am studying microbiology and molecular genetics in the Ph.D. program at MSU. I am currently studying what happens to the placenta when a mom gets infected during pregnancy and what that could mean for the fetus and how we could maybe even stop some of these processes that are starting because of infection. If a mom gets infected with any sort of ailment during pregnancy whether be the cold or the flu that causes inflammation in the mother. And that can lead to downstream effects whether that is still birth, preterm labor, birth defects or even ailments later in life.  

Kayla: So, I was raised in Maynardville, Tennessee which is about maybe 30 miles north of Knoxville. The school I went to was very small. I only graduated with a class of 150. The atmosphere in the town is... it can be less than encouraging.  There aren’t always the greatest resources available for students who want to seek higher education. A lot of people have the mentality "I’m from here so therefore I can’t" and it’s really sad and I really don’t want people to have that mentality because even though you are from there you can do wonderful things. I really don’t just think I would have had that drive without Ms. Hardin [teacher] saying ‘hey you have a talent for this you should look into it.’ She was just someone I really looked up to in high school, and always encouraged me and told me how well I was doing even when I felt like I wasn’t and I thought man you know if she thinks I can do, then it maybe I can.

Kayla Conner at her lab desk
Credit Alec Gerstenberger / WKAR-MSU
MSU scientist Kayla Conner conducting research in a lab.

Ms. Hardin: Okay first of all, she gives me way too much credit.

Kayla: Not at all. 

Ms. Hardin: Yes, she has a science mind. She’s curious. I mean it was obvious to me. She had a natural talent for it. As a teacher I encourage all my students especially girls, don’t just look at science and math as something that boys can do because it’s harder or whatever. You work at it you keep plugging away you can do it to.

Kayla: I’ve had women who had told me that I can and who have helped me in every way they possibly can and I think it’s important to give back and be that person for someone else. I go to the Girl Scout troops. I have a little outreach program where I do some hands on activities and I give a talk. It’s a great fun time.

Kayla: Only about 24 percent of the STEM workforce is made up of women. There have been studies that have shown that girls in lower education- elementary, middle school - show the same interest in stem courses and enroll in stem courses at the same rates as their male student counterparts but once it reaches the level of higher education women do not seek the stem courses out as frequently as men do. So there is some sort of disconnect that is happening. We have incredibly talented women in stem and we are totally capable.

Kayla: It’s not a man’s’ game.  It is absolutely a women’s game as well. You are absolutely wired for it. You are not too emotional for it. We can do awesome science, and be awesome mothers and friends and daughters and whatever we want to be.

Kayla Conner counting bacteria in a petri dish
Credit Alec Gerstenberger / WKAR-MSU
MSU scientist Kayla Conner conducting research in a lab.

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