Leah Vincent, a program officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the National Institutes of Health, was interested in science from a young age. Among her early experiences with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), she attended Camp Invention®, as well as a psychology-based camp.
“I think both of those things were experiences so far outside the science classroom in a small, rural school that they kind of opened up my eyes to the fact that science isn’t just chemistry and physics as you’re learning them in textbooks; there are all these different ways you can go in a scientific career,” Vincent explained in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame®.
Exploring STEM Concepts
As a child, Vincent was encouraged to explore her interest in STEM, and her parents saw Camp Invention as an exciting summertime opportunity for their daughter. Vincent shared that she “was interested in finding out new things and playing with nature, and exploring and finding out how things work together.” At the age of 9, Vincent attended Camp Invention during the program’s very first year, 1990, where she remembers building inventions out of toothpicks and launching marshmallows with mini trebuchets.
Vincent believes that the hands-on approach of Camp Invention was particularly impactful for her. “It’s the difference between being taught something and learning something, because you’re figuring out how things work together yourself,” Vincent explained. “And that’s the mindset you need to be a scientist later in life.”
These early experiences with building an Innovation Mindset™ made a lasting impact that influenced her future plans. Vincent explained that, regardless of the field a child grows up to enter, having a foundation of creative problem-solving skills is important. Camp allows children to expand their horizons and experiment with problem solving, creativity, collaboration and other skills that are necessary not only for microbiologists or engineers but for those in fields outside of STEM as well.
The Impact of Early Opportunities
Vincent continued to pursue science into adulthood, earning a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Miami University. She then spent four years in the U.S. Navy before earning a doctorate in emerging infectious diseases from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
When reflecting on her career at NIAID and her path to becoming a scientist, Vincent shared, “I don’t think that I would have gone that career route without things like Camp Invention.”
Learning experiences that expose young minds to new possibilities are essential. This is why Vincent frequently talks to groups of students from elementary through college years. “[The] thing I always say to them, especially for elementary kids, is that they don’t recognize that the things they do with play are exhibiting an interest in science, an interest in lifelong learning and figuring out answers to problems.”
When asked what she would say to parents considering Camp Invention for their kids, Vincent emphasized the program’s opportunities to have fun and explore. “I think it’s a great way to experience science in a really fun way. That happens in the classroom too, but there’s so much outside of a classroom that you can do, and there’s so much more opportunity to do that in a camp setting where there’s more time specifically focused on STEM learning experiences,” Vincent said. “And I think that camp allows you to make, not just connections through science, but connections with friends.”
Vincent is a great example of how campers can grow to become STEM role models, making a difference through meaningful work. She said, “ I work for the National Institutes of Health, the institute that is responsible for much of our response to COVID-19 through a worldwide pandemic, and I don’t think I’d have those opportunities if I hadn’t had that really good basis as a young child to think ‘I want to continue on in science.’”