Skip to main content

STEM and a Legacy in Science

Live Vaccine Strain biofilm
Heather Wilhelm (left), a teacher at Middletown Middle School in Middletown, Maryland, hosted a STEM series where Col. Claudia Henemyre, Deputy Commander at USAMRIID and an Army Biochemist, spoke to students about her STEM journey while serving in the U.S. Army. (Photo by Joseph Nieves, USAMRIID)

The power behind the leading-edge science happening at U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases are the minds of our incredible scientists and using that power to inspire others into science is one of our greatest objectives. So, it was no coincidence when Middletown Middle School Science Teacher, and Frederick native, Heather Wilhelm contacted us for assistance.

Heather, a former employee at RIID, began her journey in science in our Diagnostics Systems Division in 1997 as a high school senior. In DSD she learned how to do Polymerase Chain Reaction, a laboratory technique for rapidly producing millions to billions of copies of a segment of DNA, which can then be studied in greater detail. Which ultimately led to making primers, short pieces of single-stranded DNA that are complementary to the target sequence, they ensure amplification of the specific sequence of the targeted DNA.

"This was a great experience that led to employment as a college student while on summer and winter breaks," Wilhelm said of her time at RIID. "Following my graduation from the University of South Carolina in December of 2001, I was employed as a contractor to test air samples."

After that time, she returned to RIID to work under Dr. Connie Schmaljohn in the Virology Department learning various plaque assays, a method for measuring virus concentration as it relates to infectious dose and working in the biosafety labs. Her last few years here were spent conducting research on anthrax and tularemia.

Now, she is a science teacher at Middletown Middle and working toward inspiring young minds in STEM and the bright future that it can bring.

"RIID gave me the real-world science experience I desired before heading to the classroom," Wilhelm spoke of teaching being her ultimate goal but not wanting to teach right out of college. "Learning skills that real world scientists use, communication and time management all proved to be necessary for success as a classroom teacher."

This is where the Maryland STEM Festival comes in. The mission of the MSF is to encourage all students regardless of background and experience to take an interest in STEM with the hope they will pursue a STEM-related career. The MSF works for an entire year recruiting as many organizations as it can to participate in the festival, such as libraries, museums, public and private schools, colleges, universities, government agencies and private companies.

As a participant in the MSF, RIID has ventured to many schools and universities throughout our community, so it was not a coincidence that landed Col. Claudia Henemyre, Deputy Commander at USAMRIID, a chance to visit Middletown Middle and speak with students in January.

Col. Henemyre, an Army Biochemist, typically spends her time managing the many intricacies of leadership in a building full of incredible minds. During her recent visit to Middletown Middle, she had the opportunity to highlight her many years of experience and education, explaining how she's balanced science and military life.

"I realize that not every student is interested in a STEM career, but it was great to see the spark in many eighth graders' eyes when they made that connection from what Ms. Wilhelm taught them in class to something in my presentation," Henemyre said. "STEM is alive at Middletown Middle School, and I hope my talk encouraged students to pursue their dreams in whatever STEM field they chose."

For many students just beginning their journey in STEM it may not be a clear path but having an expert that has navigated that realm can help students visualize their own journey.

"In many of my math and science classes over the years, I wondered, how will I use this information? Sometimes we would do some type of experiment or demonstration to give a hands-on applicability of the principle being taught but many times we did not," Henemyre said of her time learning. "I enjoy interacting with students to give them real world examples of how what I learned in a classroom can be translated to work in a research or hospital laboratory. What they learn in the classroom lays the foundation for further discovery in a STEM career."

Last Modified Date: 8-Feb-2024