Many outreach programs in STEM today target children to get them excited about science. However, there is a lack of opportunities for older community members to be involved in STEM outreach activities. This year, I have had the opportunity to be involved in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) Citizen Scientist Program. OLLI creates education experiences for older members of the community through offering 40 classes per semester taught by distinguished faculty at the University of Illinois. Additionally, they offer a Citizen Scientist program. Citizen Scientist coordinates collaborations between a university researcher and an older member of the community.

I was paired with Citizen Scientist, Jo Pride, a 93-year-old woman who has been in the Illinois’ Plant Biology community for over 7 years. Jo was a passionate gardener while raising her family and her passion for plants has only grown. Although “World War II got in the way” from completing her immediate high school degree, she went to night school and finished her degree. Jo is a quick learner and is excited about my research in plant biology. Working with Jo has been extremely valuable because she asks broad questions. As a researcher, we often focus on our immediate objectives and forget the broader perspectives. Jo enables me to think about my research on a larger scale that I would not have done otherwise.  Mentoring Jo has taught me how to better explain my research and what I am doing to people outside my department. I have developed more insight about my research through conducting research with Jo as well as discussing current science. 

Jo has worked with three different students through her time with Citizen Scientist. She enjoys meeting different students and their advisors and developing relationships with them. She likes to learn about the reasons behind the student’s research and why they chose the university and lab. She values watching the maturation and growth of the student as they attain their degree. Her favorite part of the program is that she establishes friendships while learning more about plants.

The relationship Jo and I have developed is very much a two-way street. While I am mentoring Jo in research, I have learned much from Jo’s wisdom and life experiences. She values learning and education. Through her life, she created a gardening club and travelled the world. She has lived in over 10 countries. She volunteered with the local Champaign Country Forest Preserve District where she helped children plant vegetables. Jo has also become an ambassador for the community and science. By spending time at a top research institution, she learns more about the research conducted here and can communicate it to her peers. She gains more knowledge that will help her relate science to her everyday life.

Furthermore, Jo’s enthusiasm for learning is contagious and observing her delight is priceless. My favorite day so far with Jo was when I was teaching her about the role of stomata. I will never forget Jo’s excitement when she looked at the epidermis of a lettuce leaf and was able to identify stomata cells under a microscope. I would encourage anyone with the opportunity to do so to become involved in an outreach activity. When I signed up to be a mentor, I did not realize how beneficial this relationship would be. I have gained an emotional awareness that is not part of the typical academic experience. Watching Jo learn and become excited about plant science gives me a renewed passion for my research.