Jordana Dahmen isn’t your typical biology student. She strode on stage during the 2016 GeekWire Summit in striking pink heels, and told the audience about her start in science — blowing up Barbie dolls with fireworks — and her passion for medical research.
Dahmen said her childhood forays into Barbie doll explosions were what first inspired her to study science in college. But reaching that dream would take more than just duct tape and a child’s curiosity.
“Spring of my senior year, I stared at my acceptance letter to WSU,” Dahmen said. “The harsh reality set in: there was no way that my family or I could afford for me to go to college. About a month later, I received an email saying that I had received the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, and it was like I had found the golden ticket,” she said.
Dahmen is one of hundreds of Washington students who receive aid from the WSOS every year to support their studies in science, technology, engineering and math — key areas which are driving the Pacific Northwest’s economy forward. Since receiving the scholarship, she has become a leading figure in WSU’s undergraduate research, and is currently applying to PhD programs in biomechanics.
Her speech at the GeekWire summit was part of the launch of the second annual Geeks Give Back campaign, a philanthropic program hosted by GeekWire and Bank of America, which raises money for the WSOS. This year, we’re asking the technology community in Washington state to contribute in a big way, with the goal of raising $1 million to fund scholars in the state like Dahmen. Learn more about the campaign and contribute here.
Watch Dahmen’s full Summit speech below, and keep reading for an edited transcript.
And here are Dahmen’s remarks from her talk at the Summit:
So how many of you have participated in an icebreaker game before?
Yeah, I know, they’re kind of terrible. I did one where we need to write down three facts about ourselves onto a piece of paper, we mixed them all together, and then tried to guess which facts belonged to which people. Some were pretty easy to guess — like the only person with a beard who wrote down “I have a beard” — but others not so much.
One piece of paper said: One, I like to lift heavy weights. Two, I used to blow up Barbie dolls on the fourth of July. And three, I performed a rap as a talent at a pageant once. No one guessed the right person.
These were my facts.
And while seemingly unrelated, they represent all of my passions. Lifting weights was what got me interested in exercise science. Rapping was a creative way to share a message. And blowing up Barbie dolls — well, blowing up Barbie dolls was my first exploration into science. I was really curious about what would happen to Barbie if she was strapped onto some fireworks.
This icebreaker wasn’t the first time that my appearance didn’t match people’s initial impressions of me, though.
I am a scientist, but I still like to get dressed up and wear pink heels. I think that these stereotypes surrounding science can sometimes be an issue when it comes to retaining and getting people interested in STEM from underrepresented groups.
That’s why it’s so important to have support systems and positive role models of all kinds. I have two supportive parents, and an older sister, Jasmin, who is currently pursuing her PhD in computer science. I also have two amazing research mentors, Dr. Christopher Conley, and Dr. Diane Cook. These are the people that have gotten me to where I am today.
But there’s one group who is getting me to where I’ll be tomorrow: the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship.
Spring of my senior year, I stared at my acceptance letter to WSU. The harsh reality set in: there was no way that my family or I could afford for me to go to college.
About a month later, I received an email saying that I had received the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, and it was like I had found the golden ticket. What’s unique about this scholarship is that it isn’t just for a year or two. It can actually support a student for up to five years, and increases after they’ve reached junior status. It doesn’t just allow students to go to college: it gives them the financial freedom to stay and actually earn their degrees.
The scholarship doesn’t just give to their students financially, though. They truly care about each and every one of us. They’ve been one of the biggest door openers and families that I’ve had at WSU.
My freshman summer, I got to work on a project with my sister. We made digital versions of paper-based assessments that are used to diagnose diseases like Parkinsons and Alzheimers.
When I told the staff at the Opportunity Scholarship, they told me that I should present my research. I had no idea that undergrads could present at conferences. And now, I’ve presented my research at six conferences and symposiums both regionally and nationally. And amazingly enough, at least one Opportunity Scholarship staff member has come and supported me at every single one.
But if all of that isn’t enough, they’ve also reached out to me and got me more research opportunities.
Last spring, I was at one of our Opportunity Scholar events and I was talking with the director of research at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane. He offered me and another one of the scholars an opportunity to use Fitbits to track physical activity in rehabilitation patients.
I’m also able to work in the exercise, physiology, and performance lab at WSU because the scholarship allows me to not have to work during the school year. I was recently promoted to research coordinator so I get to oversee all the different projects going on in the lab.
We have a couple dealing with physical activity in pregnant women, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a pregnant woman on a treadmill, but it definitely keeps me on their toes, especially when they’re a couple of weeks away from their due dates. No one’s water has broken yet, so fingers crossed.
I love that I’ve been able to work on so many amazing opportunities, so it makes me want to get every single undergrad involved in research. So I’ve made that my mission. I’m an undergraduate research peer mentor, and I founded the undergraduate research club at WSU. I serve as the bridge between students and professors to help get undergrads involved in research.
Some might call my involvement in research an obsession, but I prefer the word passion, it sounds a little bit healthier.
Currently, I’m applying to PhD programs in biomechanics to study injury prevention. Imagine if your parents or grandparents could live independently in their homes longer because there was a way to predict falls. Or if athletes could be pulled from games before sustaining career-ending injuries due to overuse. Injuries shatter people’s worlds, and if there’s a way to prevent them, I want to find it.
What I hope you take away from this talk is that if you want to have an impact on the future innovators of Washington, I can’t think of a better way than to get involved with the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship.
Whether that be giving money, telling a student you know about the program, or giving your guidance and expertise as an employer or mentor.
Who knows? You could be helping the next Nobel prize winner. Or getting a student involved in STEM.
Or, at the very least, hopefully save a Barbie or two along the way