Grow the STEM passion.

By: Theresa Coates Ellis — She loved daddy long-leggers as a toddler. Yes, the spider. Many years ago, when I caught Kat, one of my daughters, giggling with one crawling up her arm, I was horrified. She said it tickled.

As a mom, I encourage my children to fuel their passions, but sometimes it takes courage and patience. Kat always loved living things. In fact, all living things lived with us. From chinchillas to snakes to bearded dragons, I cringed every time she bought a book about a living thing.

After she graduated Osbourn High School, she volunteered with Personal Overseas Development (POD) for an elephant refuge in Africa. And later at Old Dominion University, she studied abroad in Kenya and Tanzania with the School for Field Studies (SFS) and became the poster child for the the program. It was not a surprise that she went on to grad school to study Biology and is also an undergrad instructor and graduate research assistant.

As she prepares to defend her thesis project in May, focusing on Plethodon salamander ecology and evolution, she is polishing her presentation by speaking at professional scientific conferences. On weekends, she interns at a zoo and teaches children about living things.

She sent pictures from her field studies and the zoo animals she is studying to her young nephews, inspiring the next generation — who think her job is very cool.

Recently, I took her nephews (my grandsons) to a nature center and they wanted to learn about and hold one living thing that they saw their Aunt Kat hold at her zoo.

The little alligator was named Tommy. He was surprisingly calm and comfortable with children. The nephews learned that adult alligators can run more than 25 to 30 mph and can communicate 2 miles away from each other. They have cat eyes, but aren’t venomous. An adult can break your leg with a tail swat. They are dangerous.

The boys experienced the alligators up close and personal. And they want to learn more.  Kathryn has passed on her STEM (Science, Technology, Engineer, Math) passion to her nephews to grow the next generation. She even gave me the courage to finaly hold a snake.  One time is enough.