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Hurdling poverty to find a life in science

Scientists and engineers share how they overcame one big career obstacle growing up poor

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Most students start out fascinated by science. Over time, some might be derailed from the science track by money issues. But they need not be. There are plenty of ways to hurdle such obstacles to find a rewarding career in science and tech.


This is part of a Cool Jobs series on the value of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.

Emmitt Jolly’s father was a janitor in rural Alabama. As a boy, Emmitt helped his dad on some of these jobs. While a student, he also spent time working in tobacco and cotton fields. And he tilled the garden to help grow food for the family dinner table. With no money for college, Emmitt thought he might aim to become an electrician.

In fact, he’s now a molecular biologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. His team studies parasitic worms that infect more than 200 million people worldwide. Children infected with these worms often end up weak, poorly nourished and with learning problems. Jolly’s work could someday help prevent or treat the disease these worms cause: schistosomiasis [SHIS-toh-soh-MY-ih-sis].

Such careers also tend to require at least a college degree, if not graduate studies, which can be quite costly. Many U.S. adults from low-income households do get a college degree. But data show they are only a third as likely to get that degree by their early 20s as are people from families earning the highest incomes. Clearly, poverty creates a hurdle to college for many people, according to data from a 2017 report. (It was published by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education.)

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