Newburgh native Rachel Smith did not think twice when a broadcast journalist from BBC100Women contacted her about being a part of the “A Day in the Life of Me” project highlighting women in science around the world.
Just a few weeks ago, Smith, 23, took over the Instagram account for BBC100Women and showcased a day in her life as an environmental health specialist for the state of Hawaii.
“This allowed me to share my work,” Smith said. “But also the passions that I pursue in my free time — organizing beach cleanups, interacting with Hawaii’s wildlife and doing science and environmental outreach.
Other featured BBC100Women scientists included Jazmin Scarlett, a PhD candidate specializing in historical and social volcanology; Vinita Marwaha Madill, a space operations engineer at the European Space Agency; Suze Kundu, a lecturer and nanochemist specializing in solar energy materials; and Michelle Barboza-Ramirez, a paleontology graduate student and research assistant at a natural history museum.
Smith said her experience taking science classes at the Castle schools are what piqued her interest in the field.
“I still vividly remember the first time I did a Punnett square in my eighth-grade science class,” she said. “I think that’s when the lightbulb went off for me that science could actually be interesting.”
Smith said Castle High School always offered STEM courses that inspired as well.
“Andy Freeman’s organic chemistry class was the ultimate trigger that made me want to pursue a career in the science field,” she said. “I was challenged, I learned an incredible amount and I realized that science just came natural to me.”
Smith graduated from Castle High School in 2012 and then graduated cum laude from the University of Southern Indiana with a bachelors of science in biology in 2016.
Smith said she had the opportunity to do research and study tropical biology that culminated in a trip to Belize.
“(It’s) where I spent nearly all day every day on a boat or in the water studying coral reefs and marine life,” she said. “This experience opened the door for me to fall in love with and make the move to my current home in paradise.”
Smith said she interviewed for several positions with the state of Hawaii in fall 2016, accepted one of those positions a few weeks later and moved to the island of Oahu in January 2017.
“Moving so far away from my family, boyfriend and friends was never my plan,” she said. “But the opportunity arose and I just couldn’t say no.”
Smith said the first month on island was difficult because she didn’t know anyone.
“Butt I had an incredible support system cheering me on from 4,200 plus miles away,” she said. “Also, the people here are very friendly and welcoming. They treat everyone like ‘ohana!’ ”
Smith said her job duty as an environmental health specialist working for the State of Hawaii is to protect human health and the environment.
“I spend about 70 percent of my time in the office and 30 percent of my time in the field,” she said. “We regulate all of the Hawaiian Islands and I love being able to travel for work.”
Smith said it is important to highlight science stories in general like BBC100Women is doing.
“Because our stories don’t typically make the front page,” she said. “Women in science are in even greater need of representation.”
According to the BBC, a 2014 YouGov survey, conducted on behalf of UK grassroots group ScienceGrrl of almost 3,000 people, found that only 47 percent of those asked could name a famous woman scientist.
“Of those that could,” Smith said, “53 percent named Marie Curie.”
Smith said growing up, she thought her only career option in science was to become a doctor.
“I, and so many other female scientists, want young girls to realize how many opportunities they have in the STEM field,” she said. “I want girls to know that they can be an environmental scientist or a nanochemist or a space engineer and they can still have a family too.”
Anyone interested in learning more about how to pursue a career in science may contact Smith at email@example.com. You can also follow her her instagram account @theblondebiologist, her Facebook @theblondebiologist or her blog www.theblondebiologist.com for tips on how to live eco-friendly and a glimpse into her life in Hawaii.
Rachel’s mother, Lori Smith, said she and her husband are thankful that God has given their daughter this opportunity to live and work in Hawaii.
“We are incredibly proud of Rachel for pursuing her dream — over 4,000 miles from home,” she said. “It’s a great honor to be chosen as a BCC100 Women in science, and we hope Rachel is an inspiration for more young women to choose science as a career and follow their dream.”
Smith said many women scientists before her have paved the way.
“And broken through the glass ceiling so that I can excel as a scientist in my field,” she said. “I hope to continue this so that younger generations of girls may face even fewer obstacles.”