April Marchetti came to Randolph-Macon College in 1993 expecting to be a business major. She was greeted with a surprise.
For her first semester, the Ashland school placed her in freshman classes that weren't about business. Instead, she got chemistry, biology, physics and calculus.
“I ended up loving all of those classes – especially chemistry,” Marchetti said.
Today, she spreads the love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to a student population that is often overlooked in the Richmond region and elsewhere.
Marchetti, now a chemistry professor at her alma mater, is the founder of Pathways to Science / Caminos a la Ciencia. Launched in 2017, the program aims to get Latina high school students in central Virginia more involved in STEM. And in 2019, she received the second-largest grant in Randolph-Macon history: The National Science Foundation awarded her $1.1 million to continue the program.
As part of Pathways, students stay on the Randolph-Macon campus for a week in July to get the experience of living in a residence hall. They visit area companies such as WestRock and Dominion Energy while also meeting female STEM professionals in the region.
“The goal is to keep the girls interested in STEM – and interested in attending higher education of some sort – and getting a career in STEM,” Marchetti said. “They may never have met a woman with a Ph.D. or a woman with a STEM degree other than their doctor.”
With the new funding, which runs through 2022, Pathways is adding mentorships for participants throughout the school year with Randolph-Macon students who are pursuing STEM degrees. The participants also receive scholarships to help pay for college.
Marchetti started Pathways in 2017 with a $300,000 NSF grant and 10 students. She expanded to 20 students in 2018, and this year, 37 students participated – all 20 from the first two cohorts and 17 new Latina students.
“She’s nurtured this community,” said Robert Patterson, Randolph-Macon's senior director of institutional partnerships.
Latina women make up just 2% of scientists and engineers, according to NSF data. They make up the same percentage of the computing workforce, the National Center for Women & Information Technology reported in a 2018 study.
The number of female Hispanic students in the Richmond region has more than doubled in the past 10 years, from 5,206 in the 2009-10 school year to 11,600 in 2018-19, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
“We have a growing Hispanic population in Richmond, and there are not a lot of services aimed at that population,” Marchetti said. “There are some, but none that I know of that aim to get our Latina girls interested in STEM.”
After graduating from Randolph-Macon and earning her Ph.D. at Penn State University, Marchetti looked for jobs at a small liberal arts college. By happenstance, a chemistry professor at her alma mater left her post when the professor’s husband entered seminary, so the school had an opening.
Marchetti came back and hasn’t left.
“Lots of things have changed for her, but she’s always cared about people,” said Serge Schreiner, the chairman of Randolph-Macon's chemistry department and one of Marchetti’s college professors.
Marchetti also is connected to the biggest grant in school history: In 2015, she was awarded a roughly $1.2 million NSF grant for a program to recruit and train chemistry, biology and physics teachers. Those teachers, who receive a tuition scholarship to Randolph-Macon, then go into high-needs schools for four years.
“That project started my passion,” Marchetti said. “It showed me that I can help people on all sorts of different fronts.”
Two years later, she launched Pathways to bring young Latina women into the sciences. Said Marchetti: "We wanted to fill that void."
IN HER WORDS: APRIL MARCHETTI
director, Pathways to Science (at Randolph-Macon College)
Hometown: King George
Family: husband Stefan, three children
Tell us about an object you own that has great sentimental value
This is a really odd thing, but in my office I have a bottle cap that has “Good things come to those who hustle” written on the inside.
I found it at a time in my life when I was feeling really discouraged personally and professionally, and I was really close to quitting my job, leaving Richmond and pursuing some other profession elsewhere. Something about that message really resonated with me, and I decided to stick it out for just a bit longer, work a bit harder and see what would happen.
And wouldn’t you know, with a little bit of time and hard work, things got better. The National Science Foundation funded the Pathways to Science program, I was promoted to full professor, and I found a friend at work who shares my goals and visions – and helps keep me sane.
I keep that bottle cap taped to the side of my monitor as a reminder that when things seem terrible, I should just keep hustling. It’s funny how little things can mean a lot!
Who is your role model?
I’ve always admired Eleanor Roosevelt for using her status and position to help others.
She was an outspoken civil rights advocate for African Americans and women at a time when few women would dare to speak out in that way, even though she was heavily criticized at the time. Her leadership of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in the late 1940s was an amazing accomplishment, and I admire her long-term and continued advocacy for social justice.
A quote of hers has always stuck with me in the work I do: “I know that we will be the sufferers if we let great wrongs occur without exerting ourselves to correct them.”
What is something about you that might surprise others?
Well, my students are always really surprised that I’m into video games. My husband and I play together – some of our favorites are Red Dead Redemption, BioShock, Fallout and the Halo series. I find the strategy and problem-solving associated with these kinds of games really interesting, and they’re a great way to relax as well.
What is your favorite TV program?
I don’t really watch a lot of TV programs or movies, but I watch a lot of hockey games! My family and I attend several NHL games each season, and I watch lots of hockey on television – mostly in the evenings, after my kids are in bed and I’m grading papers or catching up on other work.
I became interested in hockey during graduate school at Penn State because I could afford season tickets on a grad student salary, and I guess I just never stopped watching. I’m a big fan of the Richmond Generals, and I would love to see a minor-league hockey team come back to Richmond soon!
If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?
Marie Curie, the pioneering chemist/physicist who was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize (and the only woman who has won it twice).
She was an amazing female scientist, and her career is truly impressive – she identified and explained radioactivity, published many scientific papers, discovered several elements, won numerous prizes and awards, and was a professor who ran her own lab at a time when women weren’t accepted as faculty.
I’d want to ask her how she managed to accomplish all of this in the late 1800s/early 1900s, at a time when most women were confined to duties at home. (And I would also warn her to protect herself from the radioactive elements she discovered!)
Describe a small moment in your life that has had a lasting impact on you
In the summer after my first year of college, I went to the grocery store to pick up something for my mother. While I was checking out, I ran into an older friend from high school.
As we were chatting, he asked me what I was majoring in. I replied that I was studying chemistry, and he got the strangest look on his face and said something like “Chemistry?!? I always thought you’d major in a more 'girly subject!' " in such an incredulous, condescending way.
It made me so mad! And honestly sad, too, because I’d looked up to this person and felt terrible that he didn’t think I was “good enough” for some reason.
I thought about that encounter for a long time. I ultimately came to the conclusion that many people are disempowered by other people’s bias, and I wanted to pursue work to encourage other women to pursue their passions as well – regardless of what others thought.
Tell us about a setback or disappointment and what you learned from it
When I first started applying for money for my work on STEM equity and inclusion, I got turned down – a lot. I submitted my first major grant proposal three times before it was finally accepted for funding. This isn’t unusual, but it was sure disappointing and can be discouraging when you can only submit to a program once per year.
But receiving detailed feedback with each proposal really helped me learn more about the funding process, what agencies are looking for and how to accept criticism gracefully and without giving up. I’ve had many more rejections since then, but I’ve also had a lot of proposals accepted.
The result of those proposals means more young people are engaged in the STEM disciplines and empowered to see their futures connected to STEM. I’m glad I didn’t give up!
What is something you haven’t done that you’d really like to do?
I love to travel and have been to many countries, but I’ve not yet visited any countries in Asia. My family is hoping to travel to Japan in December 2020, shortly after the Tokyo Olympics end. I’m really looking forward to seeing a new part of the world.
If you had to pick a different profession, what would you choose?
I’ve spent my entire career in academia and love the work that I do, so it’s hard to pick something that might be equally rewarding. But I do love numbers, calculations and any kind of math. I always thought I’d enjoy being an accountant or an actuary – both of those jobs sound really interesting and engaging to me.
How would you spend a great day in Richmond with a close friend?
Gosh – there are so many things to choose from! I think I’d start with breakfast at Ashland Coffee & Tea, followed by a tour of downtown Ashland and a walk around Randolph-Macon College’s beautiful campus.
Then we’d head into the city for a festival – there’s always something going on, but Arts in the Park is one of my favorites. Next would be Scott’s Addition to visit The Circuit Arcade Bar, which my entire family loves.
And finally, we’d head back into Ashland for dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, The Caboose. They’ve got a diverse and locally sourced menu, good beer on draft and a comfortable, friendly atmosphere. Definitely a great place to take out-of-town guests!
If you could deliver a message to a large audience, what would it be?
I would want to encourage everyone to use their power, no matter how big or small it is, to create positive change in the world. Whether it’s by encouraging someone else on a day-to-day basis, volunteering to help those who are less fortunate than you are, or working to create societal change on a larger scale, any action you take that positively affects the lives of others is a valuable one.