Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Nora Sun of Talaria Summer Institute Is Helping To Change Our World

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You can never do enough planning: When I launched Talaria, I thought I had thoroughly planned the endeavor. I had described how each step of the program should go. However, I hadn’t planned for all the things that could go wrong — mentor and mentee non-response, lack of access to scientific journals, etc. Since then, I’ve always written contingency and damage control plans for everything that can possibly go awry.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nora Sun. Nora Sun is a young leader dedicated to increasing cognitive diversity in scientific research through initiatives such as Talaria Summer Institute, a prestigious international scientific research program for female high school students which has collaborated with institutions such as MIT, Yale, NASA, NIH, University of Toronto, and University of Edinburgh. Her program helps young girls from underprivileged backgrounds build the self-efficacy and resumes for a successful career in scientific research. She was named a Global Teen Leader by Nile Rodgers’s We Are Family Foundation and a Daily Point of Light by George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light for her work, and she will be speaking at the 77th United Nations General Assembly’s Science Summit this fall. Nora is also a first-generation immigrant and a student at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago, Illinois.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I loved competitive math as a kid, and I ended up joining my middle school’s competitive math team as the only girl. On the math team, the other team members quickly formed a friend group who solved math problems inside and outside of team practices together. I never felt welcome to be part of this friend group because of my gender. I ended up placing last on my team in a series of competitions and dropping out of the math team after a year. I later found out that the other team members had practiced with special competitive math classes and workbooks together, which I’d never even known existed. This experience left a deep impression on me about how underrepresentation in STEM perpetuates itself. Minority individuals are often not welcome in academic science spaces. They are automatically disadvantaged, lacking the resources and insider knowledge their peers have. This often leads them to drop out of STEM spaces.

Following that experience, I developed an interest in science research. I wrote dozens of research proposals and participated in several research internships and programs. Interacting with and manipulating science concepts through the research process was challenging and exhilarating, and most importantly, incredibly intellectually empowering. After doing research, I felt like science was a subject that I could truly understand and master. I’d previously thought there must have been something wrong with my science brain to do so poorly on the math team, but doing research reignited my love for science and rebuilt my self-confidence to pursue it.

I later realized that insecurities about my cognitive abilities were not a unique experience for women wishing to pursue STEM. For example, I noticed that when boys enrolled in advanced male-dominated science classes and struggled, they believed that they could master the content with help from their peers or more studying. However, when girls enrolled in these classes and struggled, they began to doubt their intelligence; thoughts like “my brain is simply not meant for this” would intrude.

I founded Talaria Summer Institute with the goal of helping teen girls build the self-efficacy and self-confidence to pursue STEM through participating in research apprenticeships. Talaria Summer Institute (TSI) is a free summer STEM research mentorship program for female and genderqueer students. During the program, mentees work one-on-one with a research mentor to complete an independent science research project, write a research paper, and present their findings at a conference. The program has a 13% acceptance rate, and we incorporate intersectionality into our selection process by seeking girls who come from underprivileged backgrounds and would otherwise not get the opportunity to do research as a high school student. We have hosted 3 programs, through which we’ve worked with 400 mentees from across the world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Something I found really interesting is how many of my old friends ended up volunteering in the organization. A few friends from my old schools and summer camps happen to be volunteers (without my influence). One girl I was friends with all the way back in elementary school when I lived in New York signed up a year ago. I haven’t talked to her in a decade and back then, she hadn’t been interested in science. When we talked again, we found out that we’ve independently developed very similar interests. Reminds me that it’s a small world and we all are more alike than we are different. 🙂

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Once, when pitching to a potential partner, I wanted to express that our mentees have a great range of scientific interests, “from neuroscience to astronomy.” However, what actually came out of my mouth was “from neuroscience to astrology” (yes, the “science” of psychic readings and zodiac signs). I was 14 and this was the first time I’d ever pitched. Even though I kept speaking, I was panicking on the inside, and I’m sure my cheeks reddened a little.

After the meeting, we got the partnership. I can draw many lessons from this mistake — always practice the pitch, don’t point out slip-ups if they are not pointed out for you, spend less time looking at astrology posts on Instagram, etc — but the most important one I gained at that time is that there is always a little bit of room for mistakes.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

The primary value Talaria Summer Institute generates for society is greater interest and matriculation into scientific research by girls which contributes to a more diverse science research force and ultimately a more rapid scientific innovation process. Conducting research not only helps augment mentees’ self-efficacy and teach them what professional science research looks like but also allows them to put that initial research experience onto their resume that will open future doors for them.

In the past three years, we’ve provided 400 high school students with research experience. At the beginning and end of each program, we survey participants’ confidence regarding certain aspects of research. On average, they experience a 91% confidence increase in content knowledge, 76% confidence increase in scientific writing, 35% confidence increase in project ideation, and 65% confidence increase in self-directed research.

Not only does Talaria help mentees feel more confident about research, many mentees were also able to discover the specific areas of STEM that interest them: “Initially, I was nervous and unsure of my topic. I was concerned because this was the first research I’d ever done. I started feeling much more confident after my first meeting with my mentor. After taking part in Talaria, I was clearer about what areas of interest I have […] Talaria sparked my interest in quantum computing and encouraged me to take a quantum computing course. Overall, taking part in Talaria this summer was the best decision I’ve ever made!” (Phoebe Chen, Mentee ‘21)

Mentors also benefit: “Through Talaria, I had the opportunity to work with a wonderful high school student who helped me reconnect with my love for science as we discussed the many career paths that are opened up by a STEM degree. We formed a strong bond and are still in touch as she has started her college career at Berkeley and I’ve started my new role as a professor at MIT. Cannot emphasize enough what a positive and wonderful experience this camp was for both of us!” (Dr. Ritu Raman, Forbes 30 Under 30 Science, Mentor ‘20)

Many mentees have contributed to Talaria after graduating by volunteering in the program; some have even been inspired to found their own initiatives for greater diversity in STEM. Many mentors continue to work with their mentee after the program is over and seek other opportunities to mentor young girls. In a ripple effect, they’re making a door for other girls where there once was only a window.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

This summer we had a high school senior who is particularly memorable to me. Most successful Talaria applicants write about wanting to participate in Talaria due to financial or resource limitations that prevent them from accessing other opportunities. In this senior’s application, she wrote about being a dancer suffering from Anorexia Nervosa — an eating disorder — for which she must attend regular therapy sessions. This disorder has prevented her from participating in most programs and clubs throughout high school. She would be attending college in the fall and was looking for an opportunity to further explore her interest in science.

Though I’ve learned about eating disorders, I never realized the extent to which it could impact a young person’s life. She was among 13% of applicants admitted to do research under a mentor who wrote her as her first and only choice mentee (mentors are usually asked to write 5–10 mentees whom they are interested in mentoring). She researched nutrition and exercise physiology under her mentor.

All applications are reviewed anonymously. It was not until the program started that I realized she had attended the same high school as me for three years. I had seen her in the hallway and in classes and Instagram posts. She was friends with my friends.

At the end of the program, she told me that her research project finally made her confident that she was interested in pursuing further science research in nutrition and exercise physiology. I am very glad that she happened to encounter Talaria and Talaria was able to help her.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1. A more inquiry-based scientific education: Many state and federal education guidelines in the United States are structured in a way that encourages teachers to focus on increasing student test scores rather than nurturing their curiosity. This is also the case in many other countries internationally, particularly Asian countries. Politicians could put greater emphasis on experimentation in science curriculums or change assessments to be more inquiry-based.

2. More internship opportunities: Many internship opportunities provided by the state both inside and outside of science are only open to college students and older. This creates an advantage for more privileged teens who are able to find internships through their parents or well-resourced schools and get a head start on their careers. More federal funding and legislation should go towards creating a structured internship program for younger students. High school students should not be considered too young to participate in professional opportunities, especially when they will be asked to make major decisions about their education pathway when applying to college.

3. Intersectionality in women in STEM: Many new women in STEM organizations have recently appeared due to increased awareness about the topic. While this is positive, many of these organizations blanket women in STEM under a single label. “Women” is a large and diverse category of individuals — around half of the world’s population, in fact. Each woman in STEM faces unique challenges due to their other identities, such as their age, race and income status, and some are more privileged than others. Organizations which are more nuanced in the category of women which they want to help may be more effective in their endeavors.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Growing up, I was always described as sweet and soft-spoken. I walked slowly and talked slowly. I couldn’t command the attention of a room, especially when people had trouble hearing me when I was talking. I didn’t really give the impression of a leader who would contradict any status quo.

Over time, I’ve learned that these traits are not necessarily weaknesses — they make me approachable. I’ve used my mild manners to connect with people who later became pivotal to Talaria Summer Institute. Instead of striving to be admired or respected by partners and directors in my organization, I seek to become their friends. I text all the volunteers in Talaria one-on-one and strike conversations (several hundred total) about their lives outside of their work here. This has contributed to our high level of volunteer retention, but it is also just lovely to get to know so many people with a common goal. That’s what I think leadership is — the ability to convince and direct others to work towards a certain goal.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. You can never do enough planning: When I launched Talaria, I thought I had thoroughly planned the endeavor. I had described how each step of the program should go. However, I hadn’t planned for all the things that could go wrong — mentor and mentee non-response, lack of access to scientific journals, etc. Since then, I’ve always written contingency and damage control plans for everything that can possibly go awry.

2. People won’t care as much about your age as you think. I founded Talaria Summer Institute when I was 14. At that time, my age seemed like a big deal that I had to hide. I was worried it would eliminate certain partnerships and opportunities for me. However, very few people have turned down partnerships with us because we are a student-led organization. In fact, we have been able to apply to certain opportunities especially for student-led organizations. We live in an era where age is perceived less and less as a measure of wisdom; if you are a young person reading this, know that you never have to wait until you get older to start anything.

3. Delegate: All entrepreneurs, including myself, tend to have a highly independent mindset. At the start, I did everything by myself, from creating social media content to scheduling workshops for our mentees. However, I soon learned that other people were much better at certain tasks than me. Now, I focus my time on creating systems and departments which can execute tasks. This has allowed us to grow much faster — after all, there is only so much a single person can do.

4. Expand at a sustainable rate: In the first few years of Talaria, we began many new programs and chapters led by new volunteers. I was excited by all the new ideas and approved all of them. However, these volunteers were often unable to keep up with the initiatives they began, and many of these initiatives later went defunct. In other words — don’t bite off more than you can chew.

5. Reach out for help and mentorship: When starting the organization, I always felt like I needed to offer other people something before asking for help. Because I didn’t have much to offer, I never reached out for help from others. However, several people have reached out offering their time to help me with legal paperwork and building partnerships for my organization. I wish I’d reached out to more people earlier to solicit advice so that my organization would’ve grown more efficiently.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could start any movement, it would be one to hobby-ify science. Listening to songs, reading, writing, and watching the news are common hobbies for teens — these hobbies connect to academic interests such as music, literature and composition, and social studies. However, few teens would refer to science as their “hobby.” This is because science is often viewed by teens as an immensely serious endeavor that can only be done properly by “real” scientists (*insert a mental image of men in suits in Silicon Valley*) with decades of experience and millions of dollars in resources, not something fun to be done in free time. While it is true that it is difficult to make progress in some scientific fields without significant experience and funding, the inquiry-based scientific mindset is free and perfectly accessible for teens to adopt. Teens can do science in their free time by asking simple questions about the world around them and exploring these questions through experimentation. For example, if they enjoy a certain food, they can experiment with how different cooking temperatures impact its taste. Or if they notice earthworms on the sidewalk after the rain, they can be observant about whether the length of the rainstorm affects the amount of earthworms on the sidewalk. These experiments are very simple and don’t have to be completed formally; it just takes a little bit of curiosity. However, very few teens set aside the time to pursue questions. More teens doing science would lead to adults with more questions, and more answers to questions, and yet more questions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

当局者迷,旁观者清 — a Chinese proverb my grandfather sometimes uses that loosely translates to “The player is lost; the watcher is lucid.” It means that we have trouble seeing straight when we are in the game; sometimes, we have to step back from our company or organization or life and examine if we are truly using the right strategies and moving in the right direction.

Being young and the leader of a program whose mission is very close to my heart, I tend to experience tunnel vision. My primary strength and duty as a leader is thinking and planning, and this tunnel vision conflicts with my ability to do so. This proverb has always reminded me to step back and cool down, take a break and reconsider.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet with any organization or individual who has a similar mission to Talaria Summer Institute and would be interested in a collaboration. Some organizations I particularly admire for promoting interest in science and scientific research among high school students are Society for Science, Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, and Northwestern Center for Talent Development. Additionally, there are many research institutes I admire and would love to work with, including Scripps Research, American Institutes for Research, Fermilab, and Allen Institute for Brain Science.

One remarkable woman whom I’d love to dine with is Dr. Joan Reede, the first Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership at Harvard Medical School and the first African-American woman dean at Harvard Medical School where she made a substantial impact in diversifying both faculty and student body. She also initiated several programs and organizations for equity and inclusion and has served on several panels in various national organizations promoting minority health. It would be an incredible honor to discuss with her how to identify more effective strategies for achieving concrete results in diversity and inclusion.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can connect with me on LinkedIn. You can learn more about the Talaria Summer Institute program via our website and follow us at @abwis_org (Instagram), ABWIS (Youtube), and Talaria Summer Institute (LinkedIn).

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Nora Sun of Talaria Summer Institute Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.