Mary Okematti was one of the six Northwestern students who received 2019-2020 Alumnae of Northwestern University STEM Scholarships for excelling in a major of the academic discipline. Okematti, a Weinberg third-year majoring in cognitive science, is on the pre-med track and hopes to attend medical school after graduating. A native of Rogers, Minnesota, Okematti was always the one in her family “making sure everyone was doing okay,” carrying around antiseptic wipes and other supplies in case of a “boo-boo,” and being dubbed “Mother Mary” by the rest of her family. Naturally, this led her to the pre-med track. Initially a biological sciences major, she became fascinated by the subject area of cognitive science, especially the idea of learning “how people think, and why they think that way.”

Photo courtesy of Mary Okematti

Okematti is heavily involved with research at Northwestern, participating in NU Bioscientists, an 8-week program over the summer that pairs students with different laboratories on campus. She chose to do her research at the Infant and Child Development Center, studying how infants tune in and out to certain sounds, specifically lemur calls. Currently, she studies race and gender biases in pre-school children, which she says is more rooted in social sciences. Even in the lab, she gets to mix her two passions of social sciences and traditional science.

One of the challenges she faced studying cognitive science was that the discipline itself is not truly considered a STEM major. “Some people don’t really consider cognitive science to be as STEM-my as engineering,” Okematti said. “It is STEM-my because neuroscientists are involved, there’s AI involved, but it’s also partly social science, which is something I’m also interested in. I was worried about that when it came to the STEM scholarship, but turned out fine.”

Much of the support she received during her journey through college came from small communities she was able to find at Northwestern. Her lab, her friend group and family at home all gave her tremendous support. Being part of the black mentorship program also helped, as she was able to surround herself with other people who look like her and are going through the same struggles.

“I was just really happy to be recognized, especially here at Northwestern, where you are struggling. Getting that little recognition told me, ‘It’s okay, you’re doing fine. Keep up the good work.’”

Going forward, Okematti plans on receiving a Master’s degree in public health and eventually attending medical school. Ultimately, she wants to work as a doctor in underrepresented communities, especially black and brown communities.

“I want to be able to inform them about their health in a manner that’s reachable to them. A lot of times when you’re black or brown, or another minority being served by a white doctor who doesn’t really know your struggle, or story, or what it is, they already have preconceived notions,” Okematti said. There have also been a lot of ethical issues especially regarding race and the healthcare system, so I want to be that base for people to know ‘No, I’m actually here for you, you can do this.’”