Untold Innovation: A few minutes with Sibrina Collins
By: Dani Clark
This year at Untold Content, we’re focusing on stories of Untold Innovation. As a firm committed to innovation storytelling from thought leaders across organizations and sectors, we have embarked on a journey to uncover stories of innovative thinking that are galvanizing change and growth in four main industries: tech, medical, science and human impact. This second quarter, we’re focused on the science sector. We’ve asked you to nominate thought leaders in your field who are driving innovation, and you continue to deliver!
This month, we’re sharing the story of Dr. Sibrina Collins, Executive Director of the Marburger STEM Center at Lawrence Technological University. In this interview, we’re talking big ideas/concepts, from the importance of collaboration across disciplines and storytelling as an access point for STEM engagement to the power of pursuing ideas in the face of limited representation. With over 15 years as an advocate for diversity in STEM, she continues to find new and innovative ways to educate the community about chemistry and the women and scientists of color who have contributed to its advancement.
So, fill the next few minutes of your day with our interview with Innovator of the Month, Sibrina Collins.
Sibrina Collin’s Innovation Story
Dr. Sibrina N. Collins is an inorganic chemist and STEM administrator at Lawrence Technological University. Collins has been a strong advocate for diversity in STEM in academia and non-profit sectors for over 15 years. With experience as a chemistry professor, writer, editor and independent historian, she continues to educate the community at large on the history and important contributions of women and scientists of color.
UC: What is your field of specialty?
SC: My field of specialty is science, specifically chemistry, and I became interested in this field as a community college student at the now closed Highland Park Community College in Michigan. When I was there, I took a chemistry class for non-science majors which I thought was extremely easy. And I said to myself, “If this is all there is to chemistry, I’ll just be a chemist.” And that’s actually what happened. Now, the classes grew harder as I went along, but receiving an “A” in that first class gave me the confidence I needed to do the work. Eventually, I earned my undergraduate degree in chemistry from Wayne State University in Detroit and before I received my PhD in the field of chemistry from The Ohio State University.
UC: Where does your personal and/or organizational innovation story begin?
SC: My degree in chemistry has provided me with a lot of opportunities, including working as a college professor and as a writer and editor with the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. I’ve also worked as a museum executive at the Charles H. Wright Museum for African-American History in Detroit. Prior to the new museum opening in Washington D.C., this museum was the largest cultural institution dedicated to the African-American experience. Now I’m the founding executive director of the Marburger STEM Center, and you can think of the center as the umbrella for all the STEM programs on campus. In a nutshell, my role is to promote STEM education.
UC: What impact has your innovation had on your organization or the field at large?
SC: Basically, the Marburger STEM center is fairly new–it was established with a gift from the former CEO of Microsoft and Lawrence Tech alumni, Steve Ballmer. We had a grand opening in September 2016. It’s really the umbrella of all of the STEM activity taking place on our campus like our summer camps, which is a very important feeder program for Lawrence Tech. The summer camp programs have a range of topics from entrepreneurship to transportation design, and nearly 50 percent of participants enroll to earn a degree. It also includes our partnership with the Detroit Public Schools Community District called the Blue Devil Promise, which enhances the STEM curriculum in public schools. As a graduate myself, it’s a nice way to connect back with the community while working with students.
I’m not really housed in a specific department, but I follow this philosophy of “no silos,” meaning that I have the opportunity to collaborate with faculty across campus, in the College of Business and Information Technology, the College of Architecture and Design, the College of Engineering, and the College of Arts and Sciences. It’s really good to have that ability to collaborate with faculty and impact students.
UC: We’re curious what other university STEM centers have to learn from your center and the work that’s being done there.
SC: At STEM centers, we want to make sure that we’re responsive to the needs of faculty, students, and staff on campus–providing a space where you can have those conversations across colleges, not just across departments, to come together and create innovative programming. It’s a wonderful experience to contribute to the campus as a whole. Over the years, I have researched and published articles about the important contributions of women and scientists of color simply because if you look at a lot of science textbooks you don’t see them represented. I have written a number of articles to educate about bias for a number of years now. This year, I collaborated with an awesome student, Marie Anne Torres-Lopez, from the Media Communication program and as a senior project. She actually took a few of my articles and used those to make a documentary with several other students. It’s called Women Untold, and it is pretty amazing. These types of videos can be used by high school teachers to make connections to content in the classroom. We are likely one of the first STEM centers to develop a documentary like this. I’m hoping that other STEM centers can see what we’re doing and realize that this is a way STEM and Humanities fields can collaborate on a project and really make an impact on the community.
UC: What role do you feel that storytelling plays in innovation? Could you describe the importance of storytelling to your own work?
SC: I’ll tell you–it’s absolutely important, and it’s a way to make connections with students in a classroom. Several years ago, I was a chemistry professor, and I was teaching a second semester General Chemistry course. We were covering the topic of electrochemistry, which focuses on batteries. It’s not an easy topic to teach and some of the concepts are really very challenging for a student. Well back then, the iPod was the popular electronic device–I don’t think anyone has iPods anymore [laughter]. I wanted to use the iPod to connect with the students, so one day I walked into class and said the title of my lecture is, “What’s on your iPod?” And then I asked the students to tell me what artists they had in their playlists. I even created two lists on the chalkboard: one that showed the student’s music and one for me. The students were quite amused when I said I listen to Beyonce, and how they were listing artists that I had never heard of. I mean, these kids were really engaged! From there, I prompted them with, “Now that we’ve talked about the artists you listen to on this device, let’s talk about how the device actually works.” We started having conversations about how batteries work and other chemistry concepts. I actually put together a short paper and submitted it to the Journal of Chemical Education, and it was accepted. It just goes back to the point about storytelling and how it’s a way to engage and connect with our students.
Even more recently, I coauthored an article with Professor LaVetta Appleby about Marvel Studios’ Black Panther film as a way to engage students with STEM. Basically, it comes down to how I cannot turn off my chemistry brain, even when I go to the movies. I went to go see that movie with my younger cousins, and as I watched the film, I began to notice that this fictional African nation, Wakanda, was primarily supported by the production and use of this fictitious element, Vibranium. I asked myself, if this element really existed, where would it be on the periodic table? I couldn’t get the question out of my head, so when I went home that night, I started crafting the paper and digging into that storytelling. The next day I sent an email to my colleague, Professor Appleby, who teaches in the Department of Natural Sciences at Lawrence Tech, asking her if she had seen the film. She even added a bonus question to the next exam about it. We identified the Marvel Comics fans very quickly and were able to use some of their responses in the article, which we submitted and published through the Journal of Chemical Education in 2018. This has been an incredible opportunity for us to use this movie as an access point to engage in chemistry.
UC: What one piece of advice would you give to future innovators?
SC: I’d like to offer two pieces of advice, actually. The first is: it’s critically important to keep thinking outside the box and not let others discourage you from pursuing creative projects or ideas. Just because someone may not see the value or understand what you’re trying to do, doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea. Pursue the idea anyway and take a risk. The second piece of advice is to recognize that your happiness is your responsibility. Like everyone else, I’ve had career setbacks, but with the support of friends and family, I moved forward and made new pathways to success. So in other words, walk in your truth and walk in your purpose–that’s the advice I would give.
Thanks for reading Sibrina’s innovation story. You can read more about our Untold Innovation Stories series in our Untold Innovation Stories kickoff post.
*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.