By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
It was a 1970s Fisher-Price medical kit toy that first spurred the interest of a young Lourdes Norman-McKay in the medical science field. In addition, the Julington Creek resident, now Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay, had parents who encouraged her curiosity and empowered her to think and propose her own ideas. “I developed a strong science identity,” said Norman-McKay, a Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ) professor. That sense of identity and the desire to succeed in science now fuels Norman-McKay’s goal to not only attract more girls and young women into the field, but to give them the precise tools to keep pushing forward. “Girls and young women need to see themselves represented in the field,” said Norman-McKay, who has made it her mission to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education for underrepresented groups by securing federal funding and working on program development. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Norman-McKay’s peers and students recognized her with the Outstanding Faculty award, something Norman-McKay finds both valuable and rewarding. “The lives we get to touch really make the experience so humbling. The butterfly effect is so powerful,” said Norman-McKay, who has two daughters with her husband Andrew McKay (a Creekside High School reading teacher). “I take outreach to my community very seriously.”
McKay-Norman earned her B.S. in microbiology and cell science from the University of Florida and her Ph.D in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. Her postdoctoral specialization in microbiology and immunology (also at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine) was funded through a competitive fellowship award from the National Institutes of Health and focused on studying the role of viruses in cancer.
Q: What is your goal as a FSCJ professor?
A: The way I see it is that I work for the largest poverty prevention non-profit agency. My job is to make students employable by giving them a rigorous education to help them reach their goals. FSCJ developed the first bachelor’s degree in biomedicine sciences in this region. FSCJ is a key point of entry to get into healthcare in some way for the underrepresented.
Q: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to underrepresented populations when it comes to pursuing a career in science?
A: When we don’t see others like us in a certain field and then we encounter a challenge, we give up. We give ourselves permission to give up. Instead, we need to normalize struggle. Just because you struggle at something does not mean you are not good at it. You often hear someone say “I am not a math person” or “I am not a science person.” This draws a very clear line of delineation — you are or are not one of these things. We assume a lack of a STEM identity. It is simply a skill that you develop. In order to get good at your craft, you have to practice, mold and develop that craft.
Q: You have traveled quite a bit in your job. Could you share a highlight?
A: I was a speaker for the U.S. Department of State’s International Information Programs. As a part of this program, I traveled to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to meet with students, faculty, government officials, community leaders, U.S. diplomats and other stakeholders to bolster STEM education, empower women and youth in STEM and build STEM capacity in central Asia. It was the intersection of science and diplomacy at an international level. It was an excellent opportunity to bring STEM to these regions that don’t have access. It was such a unique experience. I learned a lot about myself, and it made me wonder how else to help in that sector. My mother was a foreign diplomat, so I am very aware of how important these interactions are and how this enables us to make the world better.
Q: You are a professor, scientist, author, and Jefferson Science Fellow (a prestigious award granted to only a handful of tenured faculty at U.S. institutions of higher education). What is next for you?
A: In the fall, I will be taking a one-year sabbatical that I was granted so that I can accept and pursue my appointment as a Jefferson Science Fellow. Note, the granting of my sabbatical is an honor, but the fellowship is the larger and far more competitive recognition. The Jefferson Science Fellowship is a means for providing the U.S. government access to additional high-level science and technology expertise. Pending the granting of my security clearance, I will be posted as a Special Assistant to the Office of the Secretary, Office of Global AIDS Coordinator (S/GAC), U.S. Department of State.
Q: When you are not fully immersed in education and medical science, how do you spend your time?
A: I love home improvement projects and making it a family project. I also enjoy reading, cooking, traveling and taking Jazzercise. And I am a certified scuba diver.
Photo courtesy Lourdes Norman-McKay