Graduate Shantel Henry: Scientist from the start finds her place in STEM

Every birthday and Christmas, Shantel Henry would ask for one thing—a new science kit, the kind filled with fun, at-home experiments. It didn’t matter that she had gotten science kits every year before, she wanted more. Henry would spend hours performing experiments, fascinated by the new techniques and topics each one offered. So, when Henry decided to choose a path that let her continue performing experiments filled with math and science, not even Santa Clause was surprised.Shantel Henry Headshot

Henry is a Northern Arizona University senior graduating at the end of the month with a degree in biology and minor in chemistry. Her time at NAU was spent learning from mentors and other students, as well as growing as a person, she said.

“I developed confidence and I established a sense of self, which to me means knowing what makes me one of a kind.”

But developing that confidence didn’t come quickly or easily for Henry. She is a Black, first-generation college student who started her journey unsure of her place in academia, especially in the world of STEM.

“Attending college wasn’t always something I thought would be possible,” she said. “Imagine coming from a background where you’re stereotyped to be unsuccessful, especially in STEM—a field with not a lot of minority representation. Although the easiest decision I ever made was deciding that I wanted to attend college, making it to college wasn’t the simplest path. Not having anyone in my family who had attended college before made the road to further my education intimidating, but it didn’t scare me away from making this choice.”

It took one visit to the Flagstaff campus for Henry to commit to NAU—she quickly fell in love with the beauty and the people. Mostly, she was excited to further her education and increase her knowledge. In doing so, she was sure she would bring about positive changes in the world around her.

“At the start of my first year I was timid, reserved and hesitant to branch out,” Henry said. “It’s not easy stepping out of your comfort zone, so pushing myself to achieve that is something I am proud of.”

And push herself, Henry did. She got involved on campus: Cardinal Key Honor Society, NAU Club Track & Field team, Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), Student Support Services Mentor and working in a host of labs.

Henry conducted undergraduate research in a lab with Frank von Hippel, ecotoxicology professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, analyzing histology slides that contained samples taken from the endocrine organs of fish from St. Lawrence Island in Alaska. This fish model was used to help scientists understand more about the potential health implication the contaminants could have on the Alaskan Native population. She also worked on another project conducting research to understand how the environmental contaminants originating from Cold War military installations is distributed across Unalaska. She and other researchers in the lab are mapping this information so they can inform the communities that may have increased health risks due to the environmental contaminants.

She also works closely with Catherine Propper, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, studying geospatial distribution of pesticides across the Western United States. Henry presented a poster titled “Geospatial Distribution of Pesticides Across Arizona and their Potential link to Cancer Incidence” at the Virtual Undergraduate Expo and Symposium this week.

Henry in a lab“Participating in research left me eager to learn more about different aspects of science. Building on these experiences in the lab allowed me to grasp that pursuits in science are collaborative. Finally realizing in college that I knew I was capable of achieving a place in the sciences allowed for my full investment in this path,” Henry said. “The accomplishment that I am most proud of from my time at NAU is when I finally allowed myself to open up to the opportunities on campus, and ultimately realizing my self-worth. The individual I am today can be greatly attributed to the impact attending NAU has transposed upon me.”

Being Black and pursuing a career in STEM, where minorities are widely underrepresented, left Henry with an uncertain sense of belonging; she struggled to shake off those feelings her first year in college. But as her confidence grew, she worked up the courage to get involved, which proved to be paramount to the successes she celebrated during her time at NAU.

“On-campus involvement and the right mentors attributed strongly to my personal development and confidence,” she said. “I finally gained a clear view of the pathway to be taken to achieve goals that would aid in furthering my education.”

Joining LSAMP, a scholar program devoted to supporting underrepresented groups to achieve degrees in STEM, was a game-changer for Henry.

“My involvement with this group allowed me to embrace diversity, develop self-confidence and build relationships within the STEM community. Being a part of this program reduced my uneasiness about being in STEM, and my feelings of estrangement were replaced with pride.”

The first time Henry traveled on a plane was for a LSAMP trip to San Francisco, where the group toured the lab facilities at UC Berkeley. But the best part for Henry was mentoring other students in the program, building relationships and building her communication skills to connect with students with whom she shared experiences.

“This achievement through campus involvement would not have been possible if I had not made an effort,” Henry reflected. “Mentorship and experience helped me find my voice. That moment of realization led to many great things, but that moment itself is what I am most proud of. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone was something I struggled with back then, but now I welcome the opportunity to expand myself. My greatest accomplishment at NAU was finally allowing myself to come out of my shell and doing this allowed me to develop skills that I will be able to utilize after I graduate and for the rest of my life.”

Henry will continue to push herself outside her comfort zone at the University of Southern California, where she will start pharmacy school with emphases on clinic pharmacy, research and academia.


Northern Arizona University LogoMcKenzie McLoughlin | NAU Communications
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