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Scientist reflects on teachers’ influence, strives to give back

Cameron Jeter, Ph.D.
Cameron Jeter, PhD, assistant professor in UTHealth School of Dentistry’s Department of Diagnostic and Biomedical Sciences, speaks to high school STEM teachers on biomarkers of traumatic brain injury.

As Cameron Jeter, Ph.D., spoke to some 30 high school teachers on biomarkers of traumatic brain injury at a UTHealth-hosted forum recently, she flashed back to a high school class two decades ago.

During that biology class, her teacher played a video of a Public Broadcasting Service NOVA documentary about how the brain controls one’s circadian rhythms and how they can be manipulated.

“I was enthralled,” recalls Jeter, assistant professor in the UTHealth School of Dentistry Department of Diagnostic and Biomedical Sciences. “It was the singular event that inspired my love of science.”

While that class session set off her lifetime passion to pursue science – neuroscience in particular – the seed of that passion was planted much earlier on by her uncle, a high school science teacher who “made science cool.”

“At age 9, I had not yet learned to ride a bicycle; I was afraid of falling over,” she recalls. “My uncle was patient enough to teach me to ride a bike skipping the training wheels and in part assuaged my fears by explaining the physics of it.”

Throughout her school years, teachers of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) had been the guiding lights on her path to a career as a scientist. And that’s why speaking to these high school STEM teachers from across Houston meant so much to her, she says.

“I wanted to give back to the community and our future scientists through these teachers who will multiply the efforts,” she says. “I wanted to encourage these teachers that what they do every day is inspiring students toward STEM careers – whether the teacher knows it or not.”

Reaching out to communities

UTHealth is committed to advancing the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in Texas. As part of these efforts, Ronda Alexander, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at UTHealth Medical School and director of Texas Voice Performance Institute, will be speaking at the April 10 Houston Community College Southwest STEM Symposium, highlighting the importance of STEM knowledge in professional practices. In the video above Alexander shares how she uses STEM subjects in her work every day.

The Bite of Science forum, which was held at the Denton A. Cooley, MD and Ralph C. Cooley, DDS University Life Center on Feb. 25, was part of a Teacher Enrichment Program of the Center for Excellence in Education, a McLean, Va.-based national organization that advocates for STEM careers for high school and university students.

George Stancel, Ph.D., executive vice president for academic and research affairs who brought the forum to UTHealth, says hosting of the event is part of the university’s effort to reach out to the broader communities in and around Houston to encourage education for STEM careers.

“UTHealth is committed to training the biomedical practitioners and scientists of tomorrow,” he says. “Part of that is helping to reach out to the K-12 schools in the Houston area. This forum helps high school and junior high school teachers become aware of cutting-edge advances in science.”

Jeter’s presentation captivated the teacher group with her insights on what she believes is the foundational knowledge she acquired in high school – from graph interpretation to how basic science relates to health to how to pique students’ interest with what they find is “cool.”

Many people with successful STEM careers have had a circuitous path, she told the audience, noting her own experience of changing majors multiple times, attending three colleges, dropping out of one and working for a year before attending graduate school. Each segment of the long and winding journey, she says, broadened her horizon and prepared her for her eventual career as a scientist.

“I shared my path with the audience so they could encourage their students that a successful career isn’t always achieved by the most direct route, but by perseverance,” Jeter says.

One teacher asked Jeter what knowledge she as a teacher of dental students would impart to high school students to prepare them for professional school. She was surprised when Jeter replied – instead of specific science subjects such as biochemistry or anatomy – “effective study skills” – curiosity, inquisitiveness, persistence in verifying the validity of the source of information, and other efficient study methods.

A rewarding experience

“Dr. Jeter’s presentation was infectious. You could see these teachers’ excitement,” says Teresa “Terrie” Schade-Lugo, senior executive assistant to Stancel who facilitated the forum with Paula Hobbie, Cooley Center manager, and Whitney Anderson, systems and applications specialist. “The teachers came from all parts of the Greater Houston area, some driving almost two hours to get here with a thirst for knowledge to help their students, and they left feeling fulfilled and inspired.”

With the success of the forum, Natasha Schuh-Nuhfer, director of the Teacher Enrichment Program, wants the event to return to UTHealth next year.

“It was rewarding to see how I could encourage others,” Jeter says, noting it’s a feeling of reward she often experiences.

Once on a family vacation to Oklahoma City, she attended an evening community talk hosted by the Oklahoma University Health Science Center neuroscience program. The topic happened to be sleep.

“It resonated with my initial fascination with circadian rhythms,” she says. “Looking back on my journey, I feel I was destined for neuroscience research.”

A ‘home-grown product’

While the foundation laid during her earlier school years was key to her resolve to pursue a career in science, the formal, strong education and training Jeter received from UTHealth allowed her to find her specialty and solidify her professional direction.

“She’s really a great example of a ‘home-grown’ product,” Stancel says, noting the doctorate she received at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston and postdoctoral work at the UTHealth Medical School.

Jeter is also grateful for about 10 UTHealth scholarships, grants and awards she’s garnered, including Roberta M. and Jean M. Worsham Endowed Scholarship, UTHealth NIH Clinical and Translational Sciences T32 Fellowship, and UTHealth Consortium on Aging Geriatric Studies for Junior Faculty Program funded by the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Charitable Foundation, which helped financially support her academic and professional pursuits over the years.

“Cameron’s doing important research on traumatic brain injury, which is of great interest to the public. She was able to not only share her study with the science teachers but also represent UTHealth in extending our education beyond our campus,” Stancel says.

Outreach can come in various forms, and each is important, Jeter says.

“I encourage science teachers and scientists to consider all the prior outreach efforts directed to them that coaxed them to where they are today,” she says. “There are so many and you may not recognize them. But they should all be borrowed and used again.”

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