#WhyIScience Q&A: How I code to make a difference
Marianie Simeon is thrilled when she sees the moment young students in her STEM class learn a new concept. “Seeing the ‘aha’ moment is one of my favorite things,” said Simeon.
Simeon is a field engineer with the Broad Institute’s Data Sciences Platform, where she supports users of Terra — an online platform for biomedical scientists to upload, access and analyze data. Before the pandemic, she was also teaching children age 10 to 14 how to code in a STEM class that she launched and funded herself and held on Saturdays at her church in Brockton, Massachusetts. She is now turning this education program into her own nonprofit called STEM For All.
Teaching and exposing children to STEM has long been a passion of hers, springing from her love of coding. Growing up in an orthodox Haitian-American family, Simeon was raised to think she would become a homemaker like her mother and other women in her community. But a high school AP computer science class, and encouraging conversations with an uncle who is a computer engineer, turned her on to coding. She studied computer science as an undergraduate at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, and during her senior year, she was hired to teach computer science, robotics and engineering at various Boston public elementary schools. She continued teaching, and also worked for a nonprofit to build a nutrition app for children, before coming to Broad last year.
Simeon teaches children in Brockton, MA how to design and program a simple home-security system. Credit: Marie Simeon
While at Wentworth, Simeon joined the college’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), where she led the group’s high school STEM education efforts. That experience of finding a home and community with NSBE inspired her to join Shades@Broad, an affinity group that supports and advocates for people of color at Broad. Earlier this year, she and Whitney Wade, operations coordinator for a Broad team that builds tools for genomic analysis, co-founded A4C, a Shades subgroup for people of African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean descent, which they now co-chair.
We spoke with Simeon about her passion for education and coding, and what she hopes to achieve with A4C at Broad.
Q: What got you interested in STEM education?
When I was at Wentworth, in a lot of my classes, I was the only Black person and the only woman. And I used to feel so down on myself, because there was no one that looked like me.
But I remember this one time in one of my classes, the professor gave us an assignment to answer 24 questions on the computer. And I couldn't figure out question number two. I thought, oh my goodness, this is why there's no one that looks like me here. I do not belong here. I'm just not good enough. Then I finally raised my hand and asked the professor for help. She showed me what to click — it was just a weird button that was hard to see. And then when you clicked it, it made this sound that everyone could hear. And I remember, at that moment, all you heard around the whole classroom was the same sound, over and over again. I thought, oh, my gosh, everyone was stuck on question two. It's not just me! That's when I realized, okay, I belong here.
So I started thinking, if I'm good enough, how come there are not more people here that look like me? And that's what drove me to start pursuing STEM education for young people. Because I realized if I never took AP computer science, I would never know what computer science is. And a lot of people from low-income families like mine don't have access to these opportunities. They don't know what’s out there. And you can't aspire to be something you don't know or you don't see.
Q: How has the experience teaching kids influenced you and your career?
I think it was very influential because I now know that teaching STEM is something I'm passionate about. I love teaching. I am a Sunday school teacher at my church. Education empowers minds. And it has also empowered me. I’m now creating a nonprofit called STEM For All. My goal with the nonprofit is to give everyone a chance to be introduced to STEM, regardless of their background or age.
Q: What do you do as a field engineer at the Broad?
I work with researchers who use Terra. If a user needs a little something extra or a tweak that Terra doesn't have, I can implement a quick fix for them. And if other users like the quick fix, we can implement that into the main code for Terra. The job is a good fit for my skills, because it requires someone who can talk to users and who can code.
Q: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Helping people — I love that. I get to talk to different people, and I get to make changes that I know have an impact on someone. That is so rewarding because the reason I joined the Broad is to help people with my code.
Even when I was in college, I knew I wanted to code and make a difference. I want to be somebody who makes a change in the world, not to die normal. I feel like there's so much potential in me, in other people, and in kids. I just want everyone to see their potential.
Q: What have you learned or gained from working as a field engineer?
I get to work with different users, different computer languages and software programs to help people reach their goals. That’s helped me gain a diverse set of skills and experience.
Q: What are your career goals?
My ultimate career goal is to impact the world with my code.
Q: Have you faced any barriers or challenges in your career?
One of the barriers is the bias we face as a Black person in the workplace — the bias that you don't deserve to be there. I know not everyone feels this way, but some people do. Even if they don't vocalize it, they show in their actions. In college, in group projects, I remember, if I stated my opinion, there were some people who would just ignore it, blatantly ignore it.
But I think there are a lot of people who appreciate me and love me, especially my team at Broad. So I feel blessed. But this bias is always there. And I know that it's not just me who experiences this. I know it's a lot of other Black people and other minorities, and women, especially because computer science is very male. So you’ve got to work harder to prove yourself. You have to be positive. I am a positive person naturally, so it's okay. But proving to people that you are good enough is a burden in itself. This is one thing that is a barrier.
Q: What is your goal for A4C?
One of the goals that I'm really passionate about is for A4C to be a safe space for people in our community to talk and to share grievances, and even be a mediator if needed with HR or other groups at Broad, because I know sometimes it's really scary if you're faced with a difficult situation. You don't know what to do. A4C provides a safe space for people who would understand where you're coming from, understand what you're saying, to bounce ideas off of, and we could potentially work with HR on their behalf. That's one thing I'm passionate about.
We also want to create systemic change to combat systemic racism. I know a lot of people want to change policies that are in place now. And I know that Broad leadership wants to do more hiring of underrepresented minorities and wants to help, and we want to be partners with them to help give Black people a voice. A lot of Black people feel like there hasn't been enough voice at the Broad. So A4C will try to create that voice, so we can be cohesive and help leadership help our community.
Q: What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps?
Don't give up. Sometimes it gets hard. Sometimes things are not fair. But don't give up. There's light at the end of the tunnel. And to make the world a truly better place, don't forget where you came from. And once you make it, help other people make it.