Dr. Carresse Gerald knew before she was in kindergarten that she wanted to be a veterinarian.
“I love animals and loved to learn about them. I watched National Geographic and Animal Planet often,” the Winston-Salem native told Coastal Review. “I especially enjoyed learning about exotic animals like Komodo dragons. So, it made sense for me to want to become a vet. My grandfather also had horses and I figured I could come home and take care of them.”
Her love of animals led her to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and she is now an assistant professor in North Carolina Central University’s Department of Environmental, Earth and Geospatial Sciences.
Her love of STEM also led her to connect with an educator at North Carolina Coastal Federation to help her students learn more about their coastal environment. The Coastal Federation publishes Coastal Review.
Gerald is one of the growing number of females in STEM careers.
Though women make up nearly half of U.S. workers, they are still “vastly underrepresented” in the STEM workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In 1970, 38% of U.S. workers were women, of those 8% were in STEM. By 2019, women made up 48% of all workers, of those, 27% were in STEM, “but men still dominated the field. Men made up 52% of all U.S. workers but 73% of all STEM workers,” the Census notes.
In 2019, there were nearly 10.8 million workers in STEM occupations, which account for nearly 7% of all U.S. occupations, according to Census Bureau estimates.
Gerald earned her bachelor’s in animal science, when she studied large animals such as livestock and poultry, followed by her master’s, which built upon her undergraduate work focused on animal health, both at N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University.
“The research I conducted was to analyze hog barn dust effects on Porcine epithelium,” she said, or pig tissue. “My Ph.D. is in Energy and Environmental Systems and my dissertation included research characterizing hog barn dust and the effects of the dust human airway cells.” She earned her doctorate from N.C. A&T, as well.
After a few years as a postdoctoral research associate at University of Nebraska Medical Center, in 2016 she joined N.C. Central. She and her husband reside in Graham with their four kids aged 16, 10, 2 and 9 months.
As a female in STEM, Gerald said it can be challenging to balance work, personal and family responsibilities.
“I also try to make it a point to advocate for myself as much as possible,” she said. “One positive about being a female in STEM is encouraging other young females in STEM. I love working with students and increasing motivation of young students to pursue graduate degrees, internships and community service in STEM.”
Gerald said that she is using her role in front of the classroom to encourage other women to become leaders in STEM.
“It is easy to reach the students in my classroom. I even have had students ask if their friends could attend field trips or listen to a lecture,” Gerald explained. “I also work with student organizations, and it helps me to motivate females to engage in STEM. Our student organizations are open to non-STEM majors, so it is always awesome to see history and criminal justice majors engaging in STEM activities.”
She said her research team is currently analyzing fecal coliform, bacteria that originates in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, and pharmaceutical compounds in surface water from an urban watershed, Third Fork Creek. She uses a nematode worm model, Caenorhabditis elegans, to determine if the collected water affects their growth and chemotaxis, or ability to find a food source. This type of worm is often used in research to study human diseases.
One of her graduate students is analyzing air quality for volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and particulate matter, PM, inside a nail salon and “we are collecting nail salon dust to expose to airway cells to see if the dusts will induce inflammation.”
She connected with the Coastal Federation a few summers ago through another nonprofit organization for which she volunteers.
“I am a board member for the nonprofit, The Institute of Landscape, Art and Sustainable Spaces,” she said. Each summer, the organization sponsors a free summer program called EnviroKIDs, and one of the stops happens to be sponsored by the Coastal Federation at Hammocks Beach State Park.
“The first time I went, I brought my two oldest kids and we had so much fun,” Gerald explained. “I also met the sweetest, extremely knowledgeable environmental educator, Rachel Bisesi. From then on, Rachel has been integral in making sure we increase students in STEM from speaking to my classes and planning trips, she is gem.”
Bisesi explained to Coastal Review that she was leading a teacher workshop session with another group the day she met Gerald.
She was explaining to the teachers that most of the state’s big universities have marine labs on the coast but after noticing one of the teacher’s bags had an N.C. Central logo on it, Bisesi said she realized that really wasn’t true, as not many of the historically Black colleges and universities have marine labs, although Elizabeth City State is on the coast.
“Then I finally connected that Dr. Gerald teaches at Central, and reached out to see if she’d be interested in a partnership. It grew from there, and I’m so glad because she is such a joy to work with, and is doing really great work,” Bisesi said.
Gerald said that she brought her first group of N.C. Central students to Hammocks Beach State Park in April 2022.
“It was a great time and the students enjoyed collecting organisms along the estuary. We identified a few crabs, fish, snail and oyster species,” she said. “When I took the second group in fall 2022, I had several students tag along again because they enjoyed the first time so much! In the fall, we had a chance to see dolphins and jellyfish! I still have students talking about the previous trips and ready for another one.”
When Gerald isn’t in the classroom, she said she enjoys working with her church congregation, Piedmont Church of Christ, spending time with her kids and exercising.
“I also love reading books and listening to audiobooks. I am also a huge ‘Star Wars’ and Marvel fan and love watching the movies and the various series,” she added.