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Research scientist keynotes Diversity in STEM Conference

posted on Thursday, March 28, 2019 in  College News

WATERLOO—Research scientist Kantis Simmons has improved space shuttles for NASA and created contact lenses for CIBA Vision.

But a passion for research and development started long before the Atlanta man’s career blasted off.

“I had a science project in the fifth-grade,” Simmons explained. He studied the company KI8 and its use of polymers, or plastics, in building products. That started him down the path of interest in materials science.

He’ll talk about the importance of hooking students early during Hawkeye Community College’s Diversity in STEM Conference on Friday. Simmons, now an author and motivational speaker, is giving the event’s keynote address.

The day-long event focuses on engaging students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Organizers expect high school and college students at the event along with K-12 and post-secondary educators and employers in STEM careers.

Along with the keynote address, there will be breakout sessions that will allow for discussion on various STEM topics.

“The conference is held to promote STEM and to also promote diversity in STEM,” said Annette Staples, chairwoman of the Hawkeye committee that organizes the conference. The intent is “to explore strategies to build STEM programs that entice and engage minorities in high demand careers.”

“I think for students there are amazing opportunities out there,” said Simmons. “If we are going to improve our schools we have to make STEM more relevant. We all can play a part, specifically with with minorities and those of diverse backgrounds.”

Simmons earned master’s degrees in polymer science and engineering from Lehigh University and in textile and fiber engineering from Georgia Tech. As a student, he helped develop products for Mobile Chemical Co. before getting involved in government research.

“I pursued student research with NASA’s Langley Research Center and stayed with them” after graduation, he said. Simmons worked on aircraft, space shuttles and military jets while there from 1993 to 2000.

When he left for CIBA Vision, he went from working on “big materials to materials in the eye.” Simmons helped design more comfortable daily wear contact lenses as well as products for people with astigmatism. Eventually, he began speaking and writing books about science and education — on topics from earning a college degree paid for with scholarships to getting a great job in the STEM fields.

“I’ve been doing the speaking since 2004, but full-time since 2008,” he said, at high schools, colleges, conferences and corporations “to improve STEM education across the globe.” Simmons addresses teachers as well as students in his talks. “With STEM educators, our main focus is helping teachers to teach in a certain way that students learn it, students love it and students live it as a career,” he said.

Diversity in STEM fields is also a significant concern for Simmons, who is black.

“The majority of professionals are white males and so there’s a huge opportunity for women and minority races,” he said. “I think our schools are doing a better job slowly of telling women they can participate in this career field.”

Simmons suggested a series of myths dissuade some minorities and women from following a technical academic path and entering STEM fields. Among those are “science is hard, math is hard, it’s for nerds, it’s for smart people,” he said. “I think that’s a result of what happens at the foundational level.”

Catching a person at the fourth- or fifth-grade level — as happened with him — can make the difference. Simmons’ parents helped by enrolling him in STEM-related summer programs throughout childhood.

They also encouraged him to not erect barriers that could hold him back. One of those included a birth defect that resulted in only two full fingers on his left hand plus a “little nub” for his ring finger.

“My mom told me early on, ‘Kantis, stop looking at what you don’t have and focus on what you do have,’” said Simmons, who eventually took her advice. Now, he adds, “I’m the coolest guy with 7.25 fingers.”

By Andrew Wind, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier


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