Kendra Allen’s curiosity about science was sparked by an episode about oceanography on the children’s TV show, Arthur. She pursued that interest through an upbringing that involved attending about five different elementary schools on Chicago’s South Side.
“Did you ever see Waiting for Superman?” she asks, referring to the documentary about getting into a charter school per lottery. “That’s how my parents were, trying to get me into whichever school was better and closest to where we lived.”
Allen’s father had a high school diploma and her mother, an associate of arts degree in accounting. They were thrilled when Allen was selected for Posse, a program that sends promising students from urban high schools to top colleges in small groups. Posse Scholars receive full scholarships, and the group acts as a support system to ensure that each member graduates.
Allen found other communities on campus. She learned about biological systems engineering from CALS assistant dean Tom Browne and tried some classes. “I just fell in love with the atmosphere, the students and, most important, the teachers,” she says.
And she served as president of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS) and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), for whom she raised a record-breaking $95,000 for a regional conference. Allen also volunteered with after-school science clubs and other youth groups, hoping to encourage minority kids, especially girls, to enter science professions.
For nearly two years Allen worked as a research assistant and a McNair Scholar in the lab of chemical engineering professor Daniel Klingenberg on biofuel applications for corn stover. She earned her bachelor’s degree in May and is setting her sights on a PhD, most likely in bioengineering.
She speaks enthusiastically about advancements in creating artificial organs and other devices that can be implanted in the body to improve and save lives. “That’s really where my passion lies,” she says. And wherever she goes, Allen plans to continue building supportive communities for students coming in behind her.
This story was originally published in the summer 2012 issue of Grow magazine.