Q&A with Jennifer Stimpson: STEM Educator, Innovator, Scientist

Interview by Jennie Trejo. Photos provided by IF/THEN Initiative and Jennifer Stimpson.

Jennifer Stimpson, Ed.D., hails from Dallas, TX, and is a dedicated educator who links science principles to real-life contexts to engage students. Formerly a federal forensic chemist with the Drug Enforcement Administration, she shifted to teaching to bolster science education in public schools. Through innovative programming and community leadership, she empowers students and advocates for science literacy, including teaching a girls’ leadership class in Uganda and influencing education policy in Congress.

The #IfThenSheCan Exhibit, presented by Lyda Hill Philanthropies, showcases a remarkable collection of 120 3-D printed statues honoring modern female trailblazers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). (Click here to read the Dallas Doing Good feature.)

Jennifer, one of the 120 amazing women serving as IF/THEN Ambassadors, has her own statue in this unprecedented display. These statues represent unique stories of innovation, emphasizing the importance of fostering diversity and inclusivity in STEM fields for a brighter collective future. By championing women in STEM, we empower them to shape and transform the world.

I had a chance to sit down with Jennifer to discuss her upbringing and how she inspires students to become lifelong learners. Through her work, she encourages girls to pursue careers in STEM fields, embodying the philosophy of a “STEMinist” woman.

You’re described as an educator, innovator, and scientist. Can you tell me about your journey into STEM?

I love this story! I’m a Dallas native, and I had the great fortune of being born to two parents who were pharmacists. I learned STEM at home; I didn’t learn it at school. When I was nine years old, my dad purchased a pharmacy in West Dallas. I didn’t realize how much that was going to transform my life. And what I mean by that is that when you’re nine years old, and you’re going to work with your parents, it’s like a cool thing. It makes you feel like you’ve got a little swagger about you.

My dad’s perspective was unique because he was a compounding pharmacist. A compounding pharmacist creates the delivery of the medicine in the best possible way to target your illness. For example, some people struggle to take pills, so my dad might make a topical solution. Some people might have aversions to some kind of creams, so my dad might make a syrup for that person to swallow. So, having all of this instrumentation, these really cool beakers, and all of these things in the back room was a neat way to see science and community advocacy in action.

I knew I wanted to be like my dad, but I couldn’t articulate what that meant. He was teaching people in the West Dallas community how to take care of themselves. He wouldn’t just say, “Here’s your prescription,” he would actually talk to them about their lifestyle. Everything from the environment that you lived in, to how to go out and be healthier in terms of eating, engaging with your family, and just doing things differently. So he inspired them to take direct action on their health by not just teaching them about taking the medicine in this way, but really about thinking about who you are as a person to make your life better.

How did you find your way from your father’s pharmacy in West Dallas to where you are now?

In college, I majored in Chemistry and got my master’s degree in Environmental Chemistry. I began working as a forensic chemist. And in that work, they required us to volunteer in the community. And so, full circle, maybe 25 years later, I started volunteering at Amelia Earhart Elementary School in West Dallas. And in that volunteering, I was just a chemist telling kids, “Don’t do drugs, listen to your parents, listen to your teachers, do your homework.” And it was just this repetitive week, one hour a week triage of just going in and talking to kids.

Eventually, we were all bored. The kids were bored. I was bored. The teacher was bored. So, I started taking a few of the instruments I use in my daily job as a forensic chemist. That inspired them to think about chemistry in a new way because the school where I volunteered at the time didn’t have a science department or a science teacher. But here I was, a professional scientist down the street from them, going to work every day. So, my one hour a week turned into one day a week, which then turned into “I would rather go to the school than go into the office in which I was hired to be a scientist.”

I ended up getting called into my boss’s office, and I just knew I was getting fired. He said, “Jennifer, I want to talk to you.” I learned that I wasn’t getting fired, but instead, I was getting something even greater. And that was a recognition from the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration where I work. I was getting the award not for analyzing a large number of samples for the month or being an outstanding chemist. Instead, I got it for volunteering. So, as I walked up to receive my award, something came over me, and I realized that my calling was not to be a professional scientist. It was to be an educator. So, in August of that year, four months later, I went into the classroom, and I never looked back.

How long have you been an educator?

I have been an educator for 21 years, so I like to say I became an adult in education. I spent ten years working in public school at Townview Magnet Center in Dallas ISD and 11 years as a classroom teacher, teaching both middle school and high school at The Hockaday School. I taught chemistry to high schoolers and earth science to middle schoolers. It was the second journey of my teaching profession that inspired me to think about science in a different way..

Teaching was not just a job to me; it was a call to action to connect science to the curriculum and inspire girls to think about science in a new and real way. So, long before the If/Then Initiative, my work to encourage girls in STEM actually started in the early 2000s. I used to run camps for high school girls and talk to them about how science could be something that they consider.

Lyda Hill Philanthropies created the IF/THEN® Initiative to activate a culture shift amongst young girls to open their eyes to STEM careers. What about that mission made you want to join the effort as an Ambassador?

At the beginning of the school year in 2019, a call to action email went out that said, “Are you someone who is inspired who wants to inspire girls about science?” And I’m like, “That’s what I do every day, all day.”  I realized that there were many applicants– thousands of applicants from across the world– but I still applied. My message was, “I absolutely want to inspire girls to think about science because I was a girl in science.” At nine, I was inspired to think about my career in science, but at the time, it was limited. These ideas about STEM were not well defined when I was a little girl, and that image definitely didn’t represent someone who looked like me coming from an Oak Cliff neighborhood.

What is also unique is that IF/THEN® was very intentional about diversifying science, not only diversifying the individuals, but also talking about the fields of science. They really were intentional about articulating what “science” is, what “technology” is, what “engineering” is, and what “math” is. So, as a science teacher, I am valued being an outsider in that frame of the IF/THEN® Initiative. Of 120 real scientists, a few of us are classroom teachers. Being a part of that sisterhood and saying, “You’re cool enough to be one of us even though you’re not a practicing scientist,” was enough for me. That is like my badge of honor.

What was your reaction to seeing a 3D-printed statue of yourself?

Making it was actually kind of exciting. Being in that room, I was reminded to slow down and take it all in. You cannot imagine the effect of hearing, “Hey, we’re going to immortalize you with the statue.” You’re like, what? What do you say after that? They told us, “Not only do we want to recognize you for being these great women in STEM, but we’re also going to create a likeness of you. And it’s never been done before. You’re going to be not the first but the only.”

One of my favorite lines in the musical Hamilton is, “Who lives? Who dies? Who gets to tell your story?” You don’t get to control your legacy; your legacy and your history are always defined by what people who are coming after you get to say. So you don’t know that you’re making history when you wake up in the morning– you’re just doing your job. You can’t put words or a price tag on being part of an initiative where you are truly changing the world by inspiring someone to see themselves in a new way.

I decided to take control of where I wanted my statue to go next. As we talk about how you want to inform change, having a likeness of yourself and then placing it in a way where people can come and learn more about it is just life-changing. For me, being able to display the statue where other young ladies can come and see them see a statue of 1) a woman and 2) normalizing that this is what a scientist looks like. I look forward to one day displaying my statue at a different location where more audiences can come and see that women of color in STEM truly have a patch in the quilting of STEM nationwide.

What are the most exciting places your STEM career has taken you?

Even though I was a science teacher, I went abroad to study what I thought was really fascinating—the intersection of science and the vastness and breadth of our world.

I had the opportunity to travel to Peru and Ecuador, where I studied Peruvian math. The Incas had their own mathematical system that was in effect before the Spaniards came. What was so fascinating was that they told us how they could use their knowledge and come up with their own counting system. Math is the language of the universe; it’s universal. Everybody uses math.

I was also able to travel to the Swiss Alps, not to ski, but to track the dinosaurs that lived in the northern part of the Alps. I went to the Jura mountains. We get the name, of course, from the time period Jurassic. It was unique because the mountains were made the same way the world was formed. It is part of the collision of the European plate with the Eurasian plate. Teaching that and then seeing it in person was awe-inspiring.

What is your advice for girls interested in moving into STEM careers?

If you are a girl who was interested in STEM and you don’t think you have support, you actually do. First, you have 120 women you can access through the IF/THEN Exhibit. You can access that online and get information; these women are your mentors, whether you believe it or not. We are ready to serve and ready to inspire you to think about what your interests are. The second thing is if you can’t get in touch with us, there’s someone in your community. Start with your science teacher. Start with your mentor. Tell them what inspires you and ask them to help you get connected to a science program or a scientist. You always have support.

I believe there is a promising future in science. I believe that the call to action will be diversifying voices that go beyond race and gender and really center on perspective. And that perspective is going to help alter the culture of what science can and should be for normalizing unique voices in STEM. Even if I don’t live to see what the future of science could be, just me taking a step forward and bringing someone along the way is enough for me. I have taught nearly 1,000 kids in my career. In teaching those students, there are 1,000 pieces of the puzzle for the future in science that I know I’ve placed in them, and how they fit into the puzzle of science will be a myriad of great experiences that will come. So, I am hopeful for science. I believe that there can be change, and what I know for sure, is that what is possible can become real.