Photo by Richard Howard
Shania Baldwin, co-president of the class of ’21, sings a capella, performs in a Japanese drumming group, and spends a lot of time thinking about crayfish.
Since coming to Wellesley two years ago, the Texas native has found she’s passionate about neuroscience, and she’s thriving as one of the “lab daughters” of Barbara Beltz, Allene Lummis Russell Professor of Neuroscience. Baldwin works with a team of fellow students studying how the brains of freshwater crustaceans create new neurons.
Beltz’s most recent study found the brains of adult crayfish that live in groups made more new neurons than those living alone. It’s research that has implications for humans, since conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s have been linked to the loss of neurons in different parts of the brain.
“The more neurons we create, the less likely a disease may be to present, or the less severe the diagnosis,” says Baldwin.
Baldwin is one of 10 sophomores from Houston who are at Wellesley thanks to the work of the Posse Foundation. It’s a national nonprofit that supports student leaders from diverse backgrounds who might be overlooked by the traditional college selection process—many of whom are first-generation college students or from underrepresented populations.
Out of thousands of students who apply each year, those selected by the Posse Foundation receive academic and leadership training in high school, plus full-tuition scholarships from the 57 U.S. colleges and universities that participate in the program. Wellesley’s second posse arrived on campus as first-years this fall. All of Wellesley’s 20 Posse students are interested in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). They meet as a cohort regularly and connect one-on-one with an advisor in the sciences once a week. Discussions can range from struggles students might be having to how to navigate academic culture.
Wellesley’s participation in the program is one way the College is helping to boost the number of women and minorities in STEM. Nationwide, women remain underrepresented in engineering and science. They make up half the total U.S. college-educated workforce, yet only around 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce, according to data from the National Science Foundation. At the same time, recent data show around 70 percent of workers in science and engineering are white.
Baldwin is hoping to help change that. Her interest in math and science was piqued at an early age as she watched her older siblings pursue accounting, engineering, and a degree in pharmacy studies. “There was always a lot of science talk around my house,” she says.
At Wellesley, she was drawn to Beltz’s lab after hearing her talk as a guest speaker in an entry-level neuroscience class. Beltz pointed out the connection between neurogenesis—the creation of new brain cells—and diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“I know people affected by these diseases,” says Baldwin. Her brother and uncle, both military veterans, were diagnosed with PTSD, and dementia runs in her family. Not long after the entry-level course, Baldwin knew she wanted to double-major in neuroscience and Africana studies.
At Wellesley, Baldwin has found both hands-on, real-world science experience and role models in her field—two factors that a World Bank economist recently highlighted as boosting women’s participation in STEM. Already, she has big plans for after graduation. Her dream is to attend Northwestern University, earn a doctorate in neuroscience, and eventually run her own research lab.
She wants to mesh her interests in science and Africana studies, she says, by researching why some black students struggle in school and designing interventions to help. “In the black community, there’s often a stigma around getting therapy,” Baldwin says, but research could help break that stigma. “Data could show people that it’s OK to seek help.”