When Dr. Adrienne Starks was completing her postdoctoral research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she found herself a triple minority — U.S.-born, a woman, and African American. “I knew I wasn’t the only student of color from a city like mine that could have gotten to NIH, but I was one of a few at this prestigious federal research laboratory, and that was a problem,” Adrienne says. After completing her study at NIH on the differences between African American and European-American patients with breast cancer and prostate cancer, Adrienne returned to her home state of Alabama with a mission. She launched STREAM Innovations, an organization developed to help students in underserved communities explore their passion for science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, and mathematics. She also works with the American Association for the Advancement of Science to advocate for women in STEM. We’re excited to introduce our newest FACE of Birmingham, Dr. Adrienne Starks! 

Dr. Adrienne Starks sitting in white chair

She’s the woman behind STREAM Innovations and our newest FACE of Birmingham. Meet Dr. Adrienne Starks!

Tell us about the work you do through STREAM Innovations.

The pandemic has caused us to shift a bit, but in the past, we partnered with local libraries, recreational centers and schools to provide programming geared toward communities that are underrepresented and underserved. We develop activities for students in third to sixth grade that are not only fun and engaging but also challenging. We’re doing activities around coding and robotics, agriculture, engineering, energy and how we power our world, and how the human body works. We don’t always give away all the answers. We want to pose questions and activities where they have to figure it out — and we celebrate their personal ah-ha moments. We do these things to help students identify if they have a passion for something. It’s important for parents to be able to identify what things they should home in on more with their child.

For our program Teen Tech Innovators, we’re looking for tech companies to partner with us to help us to develop a teen tech company. We want to develop a business model that can support students learning as well as teach them entrepreneurship so they can learn how to develop their own company.

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How did being one of few African American women at NIH impact your experience there, and how did it motivate you to do the work you do now?

It’s one of those things that empowers you, and it also stuns you at the same time. It stuns you because in spaces where you are one of the few or the only, the only time it really hits is when you feel like you don’t have community and you see other people in community. Being an African American woman in academia, which is still very much white male-centered, provided some mental hoops and jumps I didn’t think I would have to push myself through. On the flip side of that, it made me even more passionate to believe there was more to be done to make sure people like me could make it into these spaces. It isn’t that they could not be here; for many people, it was a choice not to be here. In the early stages of my career, I didn’t understand why they weren’t choosing to go all the way. One of the big challenges of being in science as a woman is it’s very difficult to be a mother in that space because the expectation is that your life revolves around science.

Dr. Adrienne Starks posing next to a building

Dr. Starks launched STREAM Innovations, an organization developed to help students in underserved communities explore their passion for science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, and mathematics.

What do you think can be done to encourage more women to stay in the sciences?

Representation matters a lot. I am an IF/THEN Ambassador for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The slogan is, “If we support a woman or girl in STEM, then she can change the world.” The purpose of this program is to highlight women in STEM and to inspire and encourage girls to go into STEM. I was selected for this in 2019 as one of 125 women from the country who were chosen. I was a fangirl of these women. You feel a sense of camaraderie, and you feel a sense of kinship. When you see other women going for it and, even in the midst of challenges, doing it with a level of excellence, that inspires you to do the thing you personally have a passion for. Seeing other women be successful gives you the motivation to know there is a space for successful women. To see other women being celebrated reminds you that you owe it to yourself to be the best you can be, even in the midst of whatever barriers there are.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Hiking is something I enjoy. Red Mountain Park is a fan favorite for hiking, and Moss Rock Preserve is beautiful. I enjoy cooking. The thing that always gave me the most joy was traveling — which I can’t do now [due to the pandemic]. Around my 40th birthday, I went to Paris with my mom and my best friend and her mom. It had been a while since I had been out of the country, and it just felt so good to open myself up to new experiences.

Dr. Adrienne Starks of STREAM Innovations

Dr. Starks is inspired by other women shooting for success with excellence.

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What advice would you give to other women working in fields where they are the minority?

Wherever you are, find community. Community does not always look like you. Find people who value you and support you. Find places where you can ask questions and receive feedback so you can sharpen your skills. And find a tribe both professionally and personally. Sometimes the two don’t mix, and that’s okay. Find a tribe that will support you. I will also say be fearless in your dreams. Sometimes we have amazing dreams that are so big they are scary. Don’t be so fearful that you don’t even start.

Name three things you can’t live without.

A valid passport, lip gloss, and facial cleanser or moisturizer.

Thank you, Dr. Starks! To learn more about her work and STREAM Innovations, visit streaminnovations.org.

All photography by D Jerome Smedley Photography.

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