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As an instructor with the Innovation Mobile Lab, Fiona Chen uses cool experiments to spark interest in scientific careers.

Fiona Chen stands in a classroom surrounded in a circle by excited young students.
At a mobile lab visit to the 4-H Sizzling Summer Camp in Louisburg, North Carolina, Fiona Chen supervises the assembly of an electric circuit that powers a flying disc.(Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Three teen girls huddled around a black-topped wooden cabinet, awkwardly poking toothpicks into jellybeans and mini marshmallows with latex-gloved fingers. The engineering activity was part of a visit by the Innovation Mobile Lab bus to the English as a Second Language summer camp at Dabney Elementary School in Henderson, North Carolina.

Fiona Chen, a Carolina junior interning this summer as the bus’s STEM instructor, circled back to check on their progress. “You want to know a secret?” Chen asked the teens, deftly showing them how to improve stability by crisscrossing toothpicks in the center of their structure. “Triangles are going to be stronger.”

Chen knows that it’s never too early to explore career options. She decided to become a dentist when she was in middle school in neighboring Franklin County. Now she’s majoring in biology and preparing for dental school. This summer, she is taking this shiny, bright blue bus across the state to give kids a glimpse of possibilities like that.

Beyond Chen’s Kitchen

Her mother’s teeth got Chen thinking about dentistry. Her immigrant parents put in 12-hour days to make a success of their Franklinton restaurant, Chen’s Kitchen. But Fiona Chen noticed her mother rarely smiled. In America, where everyone else seemed to have straight white teeth, her mom was self-conscious about the results of the poor dental care she’d had in rural China.

“I wanted to do something about that. I really want to get into public health dentistry, especially in the rural communities,” Chen said. As a middle school student, she shadowed a local dentist, who encouraged her to think about starting a rural dental clinic.

Chen studied hard, especially in science, and became her high school’s valedictorian while also working at a local clinic. The first in her family to go to college, she hopes to go on to the UNC Adams School of Dentistry, ranked No. 2 nationally, and become the first Dr. Chen in the family, too.

“I want to open the opportunity of STEM career fields for my family,” she said. “We can have the work-life balance that my parents never had.”

Bus to the future

Chen wanted to give back to her hometown, too. She discovered the State Employees Credit Union public fellow internship with the Innovation Mobile Lab through the Carolina Center for Public Service. A partnership of United Way of Franklin County and the biotech company Novozymes, the Innovation Mobile Lab is a science fair on wheels, a Magic School Bus stocked with cool science experiments like making liquid nitrogen ice cream, potato batteries and electronic circuit kits.

Chen sometimes works in the STEAM Lab at Franklinton Middle School, sets up the mobile lab’s portable workstations on site or brings students aboard the bus to use the green screen, mini robots, virtual reality headsets and other high-tech equipment.

“This bus’s mission is what I wanted to resolve back in middle school. It was unfair to see how rural students, my peers, weren’t really exposed to opportunities like this,” Chen said.

Andrea Bell Wright, executive director of the United Way of Franklin County and the driving (literally) force behind the bus, said that Chen sees the need for the program. “She understands these children need something to look forward to, so that they can seek new types of careers.”

For Chen, guiding children and teens through learning activities has been a “Back to the Future” experience. “When I talk to the students, I feel like my past self is sitting there, like I’m being transported back in time.”

By Susan Hudson, University Communications

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