Whitney Weigel: Science in My Old Kentucky Home
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
It’s time to challenge preconceptions about Kentucky and her residents
What comes to mind when you think about Kentucky?
Is it fried chicken, bourbon, basketball, and horses? Or maybe rural, backward, hillbilly? It’s not a famous state or a very economically rich and powerful one. The “Bluegrass State” is often overlooked despite its long list of famous native sons and daughters, including Muhammad Ali, Hunter S. Thompson, Abraham Lincoln, George Clooney, Jennifer Lawrence, and Johnny Depp.
But what about science in Kentucky? It’s probably not the first thing that most people associate with the state, or likely not even the second thing people associate with Kentucky, but there have been many famous scientists and doctors from Kentucky as well as several significant innovations occur in the state. There have been two Nobel laureates in medicine from Kentucky, Thomas Hunt Morgan, and Phillip Allen Sharp. Ephraim McDowell was the first person to successfully remove an ovarian tumor, which occurred in Danville, Kentucky, in 1809. In addition, the first-hand transplant to achieve long-term success was performed in Louisville, Kentucky.
So why do people have such a negative view of Kentucky when it comes to education and science literacy? One reason is that less than 25% of Kentuckians earn a bachelor’s degree, which makes Kentucky ranked 47th in the country. In addition, was ranked #24 in the nation when it comes to education. Not exactly a bad ranking, but not great either. However, according to the Nation’s Report Card (2009–2011) by the U. S. Department of Education, Kentucky had a higher score than the national average in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science. Kentucky has been working in recent years to completely revamp its educational system particularly with an increased emphasis on STEM and computer science education. This is a very much needed overhaul as many of the jobs that Kentuckians used to do (i.e. coal mining and manufacturing) have been declining over the past few decades, so emphasizing the STEM field as a potential career will help to make my fellow Kentuckians more competitive in the global market and boost its struggling economy.
Outside of the larger cities, STEM careers are not popular or familiar to most people. I was lucky enough to grow up with my immediate family understanding the importance of education. Both of my parents have degrees from graduate school programs, but my extended family is the polar opposite. When I completed my Ph.D. and accepted a postdoctoral fellowship in Germany, my extended family didn’t even know that people were paid to do such work. Science as a career was just not a concept they were familiar with mostly because they had never been exposed to it. The time and the place they grew up in was a completely different world, a world where there was no need for a college education let alone a graduate degree. But times have changed, and the younger generation needs to be better educated and exposed to STEM careers.
But it isn’t enough to encourage younger people into STEM careers. Changes in policy need to be made to encourage people to go into these careers and to stay in Kentucky after they finish their education. From my own experience, the vast majority of the people I graduated from college with have left the state and about half of the people who started their Ph.D.’s in my department at the same time have completely left the US, and the others are now working in other states. On a brighter note, the state is trying to do more now to attract biotech startups. A recent program started will match any federal grant a startup is awarded. Louisville, KY is already home of one of the top computer security conferences, DerbyCon, and was rated as #39 in a list of the top 50 cities in the country with the most computer-related jobs. Combined with a low cost of living, the state could really become a hub for tech and science startups looking to escape the soaring prices of places like San Francisco.
One of the defining characters of people from Kentucky is that they are down to earth and hard workers, but the working market of today is different from that of the past. “Blue-collar” jobs are still an important part of the backbone of our country, but Kentuckians also need to consider jobs outside of this sector. Unfortunately, sometimes there can be the feeling that working a “white-collar” STEM job is not hard work; hard work is a job where you get your hands dirty. But STEM jobs aren’t necessarily cushy. They can be messy, challenging, and at times filled with long hours, but it’s also rewarding and can be a pathway to greater economic prosperity and security for the state and its people.
The next time you think about Kentucky, don’t be so quick to dismiss its people as “slow” or uneducated. And to my fellow Kentuckians, don’t let other’s preconceived notions become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s time to challenge preconceptions about Kentucky and her residents. It’s time to show that Kentuckians are as talented and capable as the residents of other states. Our accents might be different, but our minds are just as sharp!