DU Alumni

Alumna furthers passion for science with a STEM teaching fellowship

Faven Habte (BS ’10) stepped into her science classroom at Chicago’s Bronzeville Scholastic Institute earlier this fall with hopes to ignite a passion for her discipline among her students — much the same way her own passion was sparked and stoked by her high school and college mentors.

“My goal is that my students will see that they can do whatever they want,” says the newly minted teacher. And if she gets the classroom chemistry just right, a good portion of them may just want to pursue careers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Habte’s love of science — and her dedication to sharing it — has earned her a prestigious five-year STEM fellowship from the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF). Based in Moorestown, N.J., the foundation was established to increase the nation’s stock of high-quality secondary school STEM teachers. Since its launch in 1999, the KSTF has supported more than 250 fellows in 42 states. In turn, those fellows have taught roughly 150,000 students nationwide.

One of 30-plus people chosen from a field of about 80 applicants, Habte pursued the highly competitive fellowship thinking it would cement her chances of success in a demanding environment. At Bronzeville, she teaches IB biology to ninth graders, many of whom come from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“Over the five years, [KSTF provides] professional development training and financial support, whether it’s for supplies in the classroom or for getting the support you need,” Habte says, noting that she won’t just have access to the foundation’s expertise, she’ll also have a cohort of “super impressive” fellows with whom to troubleshoot challenges.

Habte’s path to her science classroom was initially charted at DU, where, as a biochemistry major, she spent hours in the lab experiencing just how exciting science can be.

“The thing about science is you go into a lab and you just know something is supposed to work. But in a research lab, you often find out that it doesn’t work,” she says. And with that knowledge, a scientist begins the systematic process of figuring out why.

Habte’s work in organic photochemistry alongside Professor Andrei Kutateladze, dean of the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, led to a scientific article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry, one of the top journals in the field. She co-authored the piece with a graduate student and two undergraduate students, sharing publication credit with Kutateladze.

The research examined the interaction of complex organic molecules with light — a line of inquiry that is, Kutateladze says, “experiencing a renaissance right now.”

“The number of papers published in this area has grown exponentially in the last decade,” he says. That’s in part because the interactions with light “transform molecules into something completely crazy, because they absorb a lot of energy.”

These reactive “crazy” molecules allow for accessing unique, previously unknown molecular architectures and may well prove useful to pharmaceutical companies, which, at this point, lack the diversity of molecules needed to make breakthroughs in drug design and discovery.

“What Faven was contributing to is the study of fundamental mechanistic organic chemistry — how a molecule undergoes these spectacular transformations when the photons of light hit them. Eventually, the goal is to increase the diversity of these photocyclized scaffolds, which, in turn, may lead to new molecular therapeutics,” Kutateladze explains.

Experiences like these not only reinforced Habte’s love of science, they triggered an interest in teaching. After graduating from DU, she mulled her options. A career in public health? Graduate school? Those all sounded inviting, but she opted instead to spend three years with AmeriCorps City Year Chicago, tutoring and mentoring middle school students and working with teachers and administrators to improve the student experience.

While City Year confirmed her interest in teaching science, it also taught her just how demanding the job can be. To ensure she was ready for her own classroom, she enrolled at the University of Chicago to pursue a master of arts in teaching secondary biology. She completed her degree in summer 2015 and within no time had secured her Bronzeville job.

Habte’s two degrees and City Year experience combined to give her an edge for the Knowles fellowship. Selection for the three-phase program is based on three criteria: content knowledge; knowledge of teaching practices; and the capacity to develop as a teacher leader. The application process involves submitting three letters of recommendation and three essays, interviewing with KSTF staff and participating in a group task, in which applicants are asked to plot their strategies for negotiating several hypothetical situations.

Although she had applicant jitters throughout the process, it reinforced her idea that teaching science requires imagination, creativity and, of course, a willingness to experiment.

“I don’t want to do things because that is the way they have always been done,” Habte says. “I want to do them in a way that is most engaging.”




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *