Last week I interviewed Calliope Speredakos, a senior at the Marymount School of New York. Calliope is the Founder and Editor of Girls’ STEMpede, a blog which aims to inspire girls and young women to become involved in STEM. Girls’ STEMpede activated a non-profit organization to fundraise in support of girls in STEM, and was nominated for the 2022 NCWIT award.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
Hi everyone! My name is Calliope Speredakos, I’m 17 years old, and I’m a Senior at the Marymount School of New York. I currently live in NYC with my parents and three cats, and I’ve lived in various locations throughout Manhattan for my whole life. When I’m not busy with school (which lately feels like never!), I really enjoy beach-combing, visiting museums, and going on paleontology digs. On the dig I went on last summer in Florida’s Peace River, I found both a Paleo-Indian spearpoint and my best Megalodon tooth to date, which was incredibly exciting. When I don’t feel like going on adventures, I love to cook and watch movies in my apartment. Within school, I’m a proud member of the soccer, badminton, and fencing teams (go Épée!), and I’m also the president of my school’s esports team, which is the first all-girls esports team in NYC.
How have your interests evolved over the years?
This is a really broad question, so I’ll stick to just STEM, if that’s okay. Before I was interested in STEM– and we’re talking when I was really little, no more than a toddler– it was ‘discovery.’ I loved walking the beach with my parents and finding sea glass, or turning rocks over behind my Grandparent’s house to find earthworms before they burrowed into the mud, or keeping my eyes glued to the window on long road trips to spot a falling-down abandoned house. Something about spotting a find that no other person had discovered was always a thrill for me, and even before I could put this interest into words, I was drawn to it. When I got a bit older, as I talk more about below, this love of discovery was honed into a love of science, and then developed further into a love of paleontology and fossil digs. Discovery was definitely the first thing that truly captivated me, though.
Where did your passion for S.T.E.M. come from? Did you always know it was something you were interested in?
I have my dad to thank for a lot of my passion in STEM– I have vivid memories of being about 3 or 4 and going to the American Museum of Natural History with him, right across Central Park from where we were living at that time. I remember being absolutely entranced by everything in that Museum– the giant Blue Whale, the Hall of North American Mammals, and most importantly, the Hall of Human Origins. The Hall of Human Origins first exposed me to paleontology and evolution, and, once I got a bit older and began explicitly expressing interest in learning more about these topics, my dad took me on my first paleontology dig in Big Brook (a river in New Jersey) which was organized through the Museum of Natural History. Since that first dig when I was about 10 years old, I knew that my future would connect to paleontology and STEM in some form, even if I didn’t quite know the role it would play.
How are you able to balance your extracurriculars with schoolwork? Has it been difficult founding your own organization while staying engaged in school?
I’d be lying if I said balancing everything was easy. Second semester Junior year and first semester Senior year were especially grueling. Girls’ STEMpede hasn’t been my only extracurricular either! While it has been the most time-consuming, I’ve had sports, clubs, and internships that have required my attention as well. For me, the most success I had in balancing everything was time management coupled with me constantly telling myself that I would have a lot more free time once I applied to colleges (and I did!). Sometimes, as horrible as it is, you just have to put your head down and get through things, and this past year I did a lot of that. I’m also grateful to my amazing parents who were integral in making sure I wasn’t ever taking on anything I couldn’t handle, and who encouraged me and supported me throughout this whole crazy adventure. As for the second part of your question, while yes, the workload of school combined with STEMpede was difficult to manage at times, I definitely remained engaged in school throughout the past year. Especially this year, I’ve been loving my classes, and I’ve had no problem paying attention because what I’m learning is really intriguing!
What are ways IN WHICH you recommend other young people who are passionate about S.T.E.M. can get involved in the field and pursue their passions?
I think hands-on experiences are key. While everyone’s hands-on experiences might look completely different– an internship in a hospital, a summer spent helping out at Girls Who Code, a paleontology dig, etc., having those life experiences that can be referenced and remembered as you get ready for college or the next chapter of your life are irreplaceable. I would never have known I wanted to do something in science– and specifically paleontology– if not for going on digs and realizing how much of a thrill finding fossils was for me. Obviously, if hands-on experiences are not available to you, checking out a book in your school library or reading an article online is another way to test if you really are passionate about a certain area. But if you can get involved through hands-on experiences or interactive work, I would wholeheartedly recommend doing so!
As class representative, what have you learned about what it means to be a good leader?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned while being class representative is that leadership is so much more than being the role model or enforcing the rules. These things go without saying, in my opinion, and setting an example is vital, of course. However, being the face of my grade for three years, especially during COVID-19, has also made me realize how important it is to connect with other people. My fellow classmates don’t want to hear me lambasting them for not wearing their masks correctly. They want to hear me groaning about how I haven’t started studying for our test either, or laughing with them about how much our ears hurt after wearing a mask for an extended period of time. We have teachers and administration to be the authority figures who enforce the rules, and when it’s necessary, I’ll absolutely do the same. But I’ll also be the person my classmates can come to when they’re stressed, or when they have a problem, or when they just want to complain to someone. This, I’ve learned, is how to lead effectively.
Why do you think it is important to give back?
To me, giving back is my way of recognizing the privileges I am lucky enough to have and actively using them to do good in my community. In a way, I see it as my responsibility to use what I’ve been given to help others who are not as lucky as I am. In terms of specifically Girls’ STEMpede, where the audience is not limited to a certain socioeconomic background, “giving back” takes the form of exposing young girls to the resources I never had. It’s a slightly different form of service than is commonly seen, but it still has the overarching idea of creating a better and more diverse environment for people who might not otherwise have one.
I’ve also had the pleasure of doing more traditional service through the charity “Blessings in a Backpack,” which provides meals on the weekend to elementary school children. Over the past two years, I’ve raised over $50,000 (and counting) for them, and have helped Blessings adopt PS-130 into their program. Before working with Blessings, I had never seen the tangible effects of my service, so watching Blessings adopt a new school through the money I raised was an especially gratifying experience. If the satisfaction of knowing my efforts were truly helping wasn’t enough, reading the thank-you notes of the children and teachers at PS-130 made it completely worthwhile. In my eyes, if I can help one child have a full stomach over the weekend, or alleviate one family’s worries about food for a short time, that makes it all worth it.
What is a piece of advice you would give to yourself at the start of high school?
I don’t think it can get more cliché than this, and maybe I’m just saying this because my time in high school is drawing to a close, but I would tell myself to savor every moment. Everyone always says it goes by so quickly, and as a freshman, I would just nod and roll my eyes at that statement. But it goes by so fast. Especially with COVID-19 right in the middle, it seems physically impossible that four years could just speed by, but they did. I wouldn’t say I wished it all away, or that I didn’t savor it, but had I known how incredibly fast it would feel, I would have enjoyed every moment of it even more.