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Women’s History Month Spotlight: Meet PAESMEM Awardee, Dr. Karen Burg

By March 24, 2022No Comments

Another intelligent woman innovating the STEMM fields is Dr. Karen Burg. Dr. Burg was nominated Vice president of Research for the University of Georgia in 2021. In addition, in February of this year, Dr. Burg was a recipient of the PAESMEM award. This award was created to “​​recognize those who have made significant contributions to mentoring and thereby support the future productivity of the U.S. science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) workforce.” Dr. Burg has worked with NRMN as a mentor and curated content, such as the Launching Research Part 1 and 2 courses within MyNRMN. We are delighted to highlight Dr. Burg’s efforts in mentoring, the PAESMEM award, and her contributions to producing the Launching Research courses. 

 Below you will find our conversation with Dr. Karen Burg:

What is one piece of advice you would like to share with a beginning student in the STEMM fields?

  • Failure is 90% or more of research and innovation. That should be exciting and not upsetting. When you have your first failure, don’t feel that you did something wrong. Unfortunately, most people talk about their success stories and don’t dwell on their failures. We often find the most discoveries from the failures. Failure is expected, and challenges are typical. Look for a good fit, not name recognition. If you haven’t explored to find what is a good fit, you may miss out on a good experience or opportunity. 


What are some key takeaways you have gained from a valuable mentorship? 

  • You are not going to be a clone of your mentor. That is not the goal. So, in fact, you probably want to have multiple mentors. People have different styles. You observe someone’s style, talk with the person and get feedback. You will adopt best practices and find what is best for you. Another key takeaway is to assume nothing. We go through life with assumptions. Most assumptions are wrong. A lighthearted takeaway is to trust no one. You need to realize where someone is coming from and find out what is driving them. Find out what is causing someone to tick. That will be a good answer for how well you will work together. A final takeaway is that everything is an opportunity. Don’t shut a door and say no to all possibilities. Find alternate paths to all situations. Find a way around the obstacle. 


What enticed you and your team to create the Research Experience and Mentoring content? 

  • When I met with my students, I would have little scraps of papers with notes. Those notes evolved into larger pieces and then to word documents with content, activities, etc. It wasn’t organized; it just grew organically. I started to think that I was using these same experiences repeatedly, yet I was using new papers every time. That wasn’t very efficient, so I started streamlining it. Then, I collaborated with colleagues on content. We decided it would be efficient to create modules of our content. We wanted to be able to arrange it depending on the level of the student you are working with. We wanted to be able to cover topics in and out of order. We felt we had valuable information that we had cultivated over time and that others might be interested in too. I was a part of ICOR- a national science foundation program for customer discovery. We had an idea for an education set of modules for Research. We did customer discovery around the modules to see if there was a demand for the modules- and that is where NRMN reached out to utilize the course in their program. 


Why is diversifying the STEMM fields so important?

  • The problems we are trying to solve are complex and have multiple aspects. If you think you have the answer, you have an answer. Not the only answer. The more perspectives you can get, the more likely we will get better solutions. 


Why is it essential to include mentorship in the STEMM fields?

  • Mentoring is important in any field! In any stage of career. Everyone needs mentoring. We cannot expect anyone to come into the field and be all-knowing. Especially in STEMM, these are real-world problems that are complex and messy. Why make it harder by not being a thought partner for someone? Why not allow people to focus on the content instead of worrying about the logistical details on which we can help provide details? If we can formalize it, so much the better.


What enticed you to dive into the biomedical engineering field?  

  • A good friend of mine from high school had researched the biomedical field. I knew I was going to be a nurse. I knew I wanted to help people but had not looked into the biomedical field. My dad was a mathematician, so math always made sense to me. He conveyed that a number is not just a number. Numbers have stories to them. I had a chemistry teacher who was just marvelous and passionate about chemistry. So the combination of my best friend, dad, and teacher created this influence over me to join the biomedical field.


Can you describe any obstacles or challenges you have faced to get where you are today? 

  • Challenges are normal. Everyone has a slew of challenges. One of the major obstacles that I encountered was with an undergraduate advisor. I went to him to request a letter of recommendation, and I was met with a bit of hesitancy. This was more on my part for not speaking with him prior, but he read my GPA and said that he did not see an M.S. in my future. This did start to deter me, but fortunately, I was able to meet with another faculty member, and this faculty member told me his GPA was far lower than mine. He said, “don’t you ever let anyone tell you what you can and cannot achieve.” This was a considerable challenge that someone else helped me overcome.
  • Another constant challenge is balancing work life and personal life. This is an ongoing challenge, monitoring it and making sure I am a help to others by getting my rest and personal time.
  • Another challenge was convincing others that the success of all of our students is essential, not just the honors students. 


What does the PAESMEM award mean to you? 

  • Exciting because it is validation that other people care about something that we care about. It also allows us to tap the PAESMEM network with all of the fantastic people with different approaches. It is a calling card to take risks to venture outside of evidence-based approaches. 


Can you give some examples of your work in mentoring in the STEMM fields?

  • I have always had a focus on research experience in mentoring. I have also followed the same approach in one on one types of research mentoring. Much of my focus has been on undergraduates, specifically those from underrepresented minorities. When they first come in, the approach we take with undergraduates is to give them a lower exposure to research, so more shadowing and helping kind of role. They are being exposed to the research setting without having the pressure of taking ownership of it. We couple this heavily with professional development. This gives the student skills and confidence, and networking tools. 


Do you have any future mentoring plans or ideas you would like to share with our audience?

  • We are working with the National Institute of Health on an esteemed award. This is a newly evolving program. This award is specifically for recruiting more underrepresented minorities into biomedical fields. We start with the students as pre-freshmen and kick off with a summer event to get everyone tooled up and excited about being on a biomedical track. There is a lightweight type of research experience in the first year, and they will also pair them with our senior design capstone folks as they are making customer discovery, so they will learn what it means to ask open-ended questions. To understand issues, whether it is issues in life or in their curriculum. We will follow these students for two years. The objective is to expose more underrepresented minorities to the research setting. 

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