By Mary Alice Hartsock
When Sarah Pellecchia thinks about science, the first person who comes to mind is her mom.
Pellecchia’s mom, Barbara Pellecchia, didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, but she probably would have been a scientist if she had realized the breadth of the field. Instead, she spent years working in an office environment and longing for more time outdoors. When Sarah decided to study environmental science at Drexel University, Barbara was thrilled to imagine the activities that might fill her daughter’s days.
Then her daughter invited her along for a day of research—and to Barbara’s surprise, they headed into the woods to collect plants.
As a graduate of the Academy’s Women In Natural Sciences (WINS) program, Pellecchia learned about the wide range of careers in the sciences long before many other students even considered applying to college. WINS is a free after-school and summer science enrichment program for young women from Philadelphia public and charter high schools. In addition to introducing hundreds of high school women to future careers in science, the program offers hands-on workshops, college exploration, and positive youth development opportunities. Pellecchia applied because WINS would give her the chance to learn science—and get a job.
And it turned out just as she had expected. Pellecchia worked in the Academy’s Butterflies! exhibit, where she eventually became a part-time manager. She also interned in the Academy’s Botany Department and did fieldwork with wetlands scientists, discovering how much she loved to work outdoors. She showed up to every WINS class and raised her hand so often that she earned the nickname “Question.”
Her efforts paid off when she became the first to receive a full tuition scholarship from WINS to study science at Drexel. She is now a sophomore in Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental Science (BEES), the department developed as a result of the Academy’s affiliation with Drexel University.
“WINS gave me the advantage in my classes immediately,” she says. “Most freshmen didn’t have experience with fieldwork, but I said right away, ‘I’ve done this.’ Most people don’t start their actual major classes until sophomore year, but I was already using my major in freshman year!”
During a recent Plant and Animal Identification course taught by Academy Curator of Entomology and Drexel Professor Jon Gelhaus, PhD, Pellecchia began the collections project that led her and her mother into the woods in search of specimens. From her botany internship, she knew what tree parts to collect and how to preserve each specimen. She stunned her professor with her expertise.
Pellecchia feels lucky to have found a career path that keeps her active outdoors, and she wants to help others learn about the field. She recently declared a minor in education so that she can teach environmental science in a museum—something she already does at the Academy.
“Environmental science is working toward a sustainable future,” she says. “It’s time people know we’ve been using too many resources and that it’s having an impact on the environment.
“I want to tell visitors how they can make a difference,” Pellecchia says.
Meet women scientists like Pellecchia on March 12 at Museum Day Live! In the spirit of the Smithsonian Museums, which offer free admission every day, Museum Day Live! is an annual event hosted by Smithsonian magazine in which participating museums across the country open their doors to anyone presenting a Museum Day Live! ticket… for free.
New for March 2016 is a special edition of Museum Day Live!, providing an opportunity to the public, especially women and girls throughout the U.S. to enjoy and share in our nation’s dynamic heritage and cultural life.
A version of this article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of Academy Frontiers.