Helping Others through Science and Service

Science has been an important part of my life for a long time. One of my motivations for being a scientist was to help people. As scientists, there are many ways that we make a difference. For example, doing research that reveals information about basic biological processes can provide insight into how a disease might wreak havoc, and in turn facilitate drug design and effective disease treatments. I can say from experience that it’s especially rewarding to go beyond the impact of science to assist someone in the community face to face.

A St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry host helps a client to shop for food.

Just over 5 years ago, I started volunteering at the St. Vincent de Paul Madison Food Pantry, the largest in Dane County, Wisconsin, which serves an average of about 400 families per week1. The pantry uses a customer-choice model in which clients are allotted points to shop for food, allowing them to make selections that preserve their dignity and ethnic diversity. The food pantry has a small staff, so volunteers are vital to keep things running. I serve as a “host” to clients and assist them to shop around the pantry for the items that they need. It has been such a positive experience for me. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not changing the world, but I’m helping someone to get essential items to make ends meet for their family. Tough times can happen to anyone, and it takes a great deal of courage to ask for help. My goal is to make the experience for clients as positive as possible by being cheerful, courteous and respectful during their time at the pantry. If my help can make a person forget even for a moment that they have fallen on hard times, then I call that a win!

A desire to make a difference in the community through volunteerism is one of the characteristics that I really like about working at Promega. At a recent company meeting, employees were asked to share how they serve the community. Activities ranged from assisting those with disabilities to participate in athletic activities to taking care of shelter animals to starting a non-profit for children in need. There were many more! Employees helped those in their local communities and even those across the globe from where they live. It was so inspiring to hear about my colleagues’ experiences of serving others.

Promega has a mechanism for employees to apply for time off to volunteer through the Promega in Action program. Those selected then return to work after their volunteer time and give a presentation about what they did and the impact it had. Darbie Miller, the founder of the program, sees it as a way for employees to serve others and inspire their colleagues to seek out ways to give back to the community. She started the program in 2015 as a pilot program with the Operations department, and has since expanded it to virtually all groups across Promega.

Kris Zimmerman is a Research Scientist in R&D who was selected for the Promega in Action program in June of 2017. He traveled with a group to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to work with the Pine Ridge Dream Center to serve those in the community. They ran programs for kids to spend the day in a safe, fun environment, away from the very real-life issues that they face on a daily basis. Pine Ridge Reservation has about 80–90% unemployment rate, a high rate of substance abuse, and four times the national average of teen suicides2. Kris sees their work as a way to show kids that “there is more than this spiral of darkness.” Even doing something small, like playing with kids, makes a real impact in their lives. This was the sixth trip that Kris has made to Pine Ridge, and some of the kids remember the names of the volunteers from the previous year. The Promega in Action program gave him the flexibility to go out of town to volunteer, and the time to focus to embrace the experience and gain a deeper understanding of the impact of his service.

Students prepare to extract banana DNA in a science workshop at the Wale Wale Youth Center in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya.

Kelsey Kannenberg, a Production Scientist in the Protein Production group, recently completed her project for Promega in Action. She was drawn to apply because of the opportunity to spend a large block of time volunteering, which opened up the possibility to travel outside of Madison for the project. A friend introduced her to Wale Wale USA, a group that runs creative arts programs for youth in Kibera, the largest urban slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Kelsey traveled to Kenya and worked to expand the Youth Center programs to include hands-on science activities that incorporated topics such as pH, heat transfer, surface tension, and DNA. The kids’ exposure to science had previously been solely textbook-based, so the active learning approach helped them to visualize concepts that were previously intangible. Kelsey wanted to ensure that her volunteer efforts led to something sustainable. After returning home, she has stayed in contact with Wale Wale as a resource for advice as they expand their academic programming.

Regular volunteering—as little as a couple of hours per week—helps others and can have long lasting effects on your own well-being. It could be as simple as saying that helping others makes you feel good, but it goes beyond that. Recent studies have tracked the health of retirement-age adult volunteers, and have found that volunteering is associated with a longer life, even after controlling for ethic background and socioeconomic status3. Better health can be attributed to a combination of psychological factors (e.g. reduced stress, a perceived purpose in life), increased social interaction, and physiological factors (e.g. lower blood pressure). Older adults that volunteer are also more likely to seek health care, thus further extending their quality of life4. Any time is a good time to start volunteering to make a positive impact on others and yourself.

Are you already making a difference through your volunteer work? Share your experience to inspire others to get out there and help someone today!

 

References:

  1. St. Vincent de Paul Madison 2015 Annual Report http://www.svdpmadison.org/annual-report-2015-click/
  2. Re-Member Organization Website http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx
  3. Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of Research and Policy Development. The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research, Washington, DC 2007. https://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0506_hbr.pdf
  4. Kim ES and Conrath SH. 2016. Volunteering is prospectively associated with health care use among older adults. Social Science & Medicine 149: 122-129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.11.043
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Melanie Preston

Scientific Instructional Designer at Promega Corporation
Melanie earned her B.S. in Biology and Philosophy from the University of Scranton in Scranton, PA (yes, where The Office took place) and her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from University of Rochester in Rochester, NY. She performed her postdoctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Melanie is a member of the Scientific Training group where she designs and implements technical training on Promega products. Outside of work, she enjoys hanging out with her two dogs (and her husband too), yoga, running, gardening, singing, and playing the flute (but not all at the same time).

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