“I owe pretty much everything I do these days to starting in STEM,” says scientist and entrepreneur Justin Shaifer. For Shaifer, science, technology, engineering, and math, known widely by the acronym STEM, is the path to countless opportunities for young people from all backgrounds.
Shaifer’s visit to Lovett February 25, 2020 comes as our school continues to celebrate Black History month. But rather than just reflecting upon and celebrating history, his focus is on the future, and his mission is to inspire all students, especially students of color, to become engaged in the field of STEM.
“A key part of my approach in engaging students is not seeming too far away from them,” he tells me when I interview him before his lunch meeting with Teens Against Prejudice. In his talks, he likes to use humor and sarcasm to connect with his audience, because he knows that he would have enjoyed that when he was in high school.
In his talk with the Upper School, Shaifer shared about his early life as the black child of a single mother in Chicago. He described himself as having been the class clown in high school, more focused on being cool than on getting good grades.
This began to change when he came across a patent that his deceased paternal grandfather had gotten for an early prototype of a VCR. Although he hadn’t known his grandfather, this discovery led him to believe that science and engineering was in his blood. He started to work harder in school, scored well on his ACTs, and got a full ride scholarship to Hampton, where he got his bachelor’s degree in marine and environmental science. Now, at just twenty-five years old, he is the founder and executive director of Fascinate, Inc, where he travels around the country to motivate kids to get excited about science.
Shaifer tries to make sure that his audience understands that STEM isn’t meant for only one type of person. “The STEM field needs everyone,” he says. “It’s not just for the nerds. There need to be people with emotional intelligence to work with them. There need to be creative people.”
Shaifer himself is a creative mind who is promoting STEM in ways that speak to young people, especially Gen Z (kids born in the late nineties to early 2000s). His many outlets include television specials and posts on social media.
“Every day, I’m still creating my own brand,” he says. “Building a company is not something that happens overnight, or even in a month or a year. I wasn’t even financially stable until six or seven months ago.”
He says that what has gotten him to this point in his career is the fact that he does the best he can every day. He remembers to keep in mind the reason why he does everything he does, which is to show all students how amazing and rewarding it is to pursue a career in STEM. And as he told the students who came to the lunch meeting, he also wants to motivate students of color to take an interest in these fields that need the new perspectives that diversity brings.
“I’m most proud of the doors I’ve been able to open for young people,” he says. “I’ve been on tv, I’ve talked to tens of thousands of students. But none of that matters to me if I’m not inspiring them.”
Certainly, Shaifer has made an invaluable impact on Lovett students, and students all around the country, with his message of inspiration, diversity, and the power of STEM.