In 2013, Brandy Todd, AKA Professor Doctor Mildred Slugwak Dresselhaus (named for MIT physics professor emerita and queen of carbon science Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus), was crowned Slug Queen of Eugene. “We ran on a platform of evil mad science for all,” she says. “I was backed by the army of mad girl scientistas. We did fire and ice cream as the talent on stage act—liquid nitrogen ice cream and flambéed slugs—and served them to the queens.”
Todd is also a triple Duck, (BS ’01, MPA ’10, PhD ’15) and assistant director of administration in the UO’s Oregon Center for Optics. In 2008, Todd helped found SPICE (Science Program to Inspire Creativity and Excellence). Its mission: expose middle school girls to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in a fun, interactive environment that offers mentoring, role models, and access to information and equipment.
“Our goal is to keep girls excited about STEM,” Todd says. “Knowledge is power. It’s all about letting these girls know ‘You have a place.’”
In running the summer program, Todd combined her knowledge of sociology, political science, public administration, and education. Her experience with SPICE provided the impetus for her dissertation topic: how to make teaching science fun and informal, but robust. “There are other girls’ science programs out there,” she says, “but we are the only cohort-based, middle school girl program based on rigorous theory.”
Todd’s students get to explode butane bubbles, electrocute pickles, and create nondairy creamer fireballs. However, when chemicals and fire are involved, science mishaps are a given. “We test everything, especially anything with chemicals or fire, before we do it with the kids, but I’ve taken a lot of hair off my arms with the butane bubble trick,” she says. Still, even when things go wrong, it’s a learning opportunity. “We do this really dramatic fireball—you dip butane into soapy water and it makes these big foamy bubbles and you light it on fire and it goes woooosh!”
If you’ve been around her for five minutes, the last thing you might think of Todd is that she is shy. “I’m an extreme introvert,” she says, “but I’m a talkative introvert, which blows people’s minds.” Although socializing exhausts her, she has no problem speaking on stage. She also has many different interests and creative pursuits. “I’m a dilettante, that’s the problem. I make really good Belgian waffles. I draw. I design. I craft. I’m very aggressively purging the crafting closet."
The most gratifying part of the SPICE program, according to Todd, is that many of the girls come back and volunteer after they graduate—her current assistant attended the first all-girl cohort in 2009 and is now studying chemistry at the UO. Another is studying biomedical engineering to make better body parts. “There’s no way our program could take credit for what becomes of these girls,” she says, “but we can take credit for turning them on to some good science stuff.”
—By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications