Meet our Team
Sandy Marshall, Founder/CEO
Sandy Marshall is the founder, CEO, and visionary of Project Scientist, a national nonprofit that turns girls ages 4 to 12 onto science, technology, engineering and math. She’s passionate about igniting girls’ confidence that a STEM career is obtainable for any girl.
Project Scientist offers virtual summer STEM camps nationwide – which Marshall developed in a matter of weeks once COVID-19 hit – along with year-round expeditions to STEM companies in select cities. The organization’s in-person summer STEM academies on college campuses will resume in multiple states next year.
Sandy Marshall began Project Scientist in 2011 with six girls in her backyard, including her then 4-year-old daughter, Ellie. Marshall was founder and executive director of The NASCAR Foundation and not looking to launch a new non-profit. She simply couldn’t find a program like it for Ellie and decided to start her own.
Nine years later, Project Scientist has served more than 10,000 girls. More than half have attended on scholarship, representing low-income households near college campuses. Studies from Harvard Medical School, UNC Charlotte, and SheLeads have all praised Project Scientist's impact. Project Scientist has been featured in news stories from California to North Carolina.
Sandy Marshall has developed partnerships with leading universities and strong relationships with top STEM companies, from Trane Technologies to Google Fiber, who believe in Project Scientist’s mission. They participate as expedition sites and donors, with their female STEM leaders serving as role models to inspire the next generation of female scientists, engineers, and tech innovators.
Marshall and Project Scientist were also honored to receive an Acumen Civic Accelerator grant. The Accelerator invests in and supports social ventures that solve pressing social and environmental issues by engaging people.
A national speaker and advocate for diversity in STEM, Sandy Marshall is a trusted advisor for companies, universities, foundations, and parents on how these groups can support diversity in STEM for everyone's benefit.
During COVID-19, Marshall’s interests include keeping the dog off work Zoom calls, competing with her husband, Kinnon, and daughters Ellie and Ivy in the Marshall Olympics (complete with water balloons and Nerf guns), and playing family games of Corona Uno, a variation of the card game Uno with added cards and ever-changing rules.
Brenda Vass, Chief Development Officer
Brenda Vass brings almost 20 years of experience in the development profession and still finds it incredibly rewarding! After graduating from Francis Marion University with a Mass Communications degree, Brenda’s plans to be the next “Dan Rather” were abruptly changed after managing her first fundraiser as a volunteer for the American Cancer Society just one month before graduating! She knew that her passion was connecting people with purpose and pursued every opportunity to support her vision for becoming a development professional.
Over the next twenty years, Brenda worked for organizations like Special Olympics, National MS Society, American Heart Association, Arts & Science Council and more recently held the chief development officer position for NC MedAssist. Her passion for customer service excellence, storytelling, and a knack for seeing potential in everyone have helped her find success with generating interest, awareness and income for the mission of the organizations she has been fortunate to serve.
Brenda has an excitement for developing strategic approaches to funding challenges and is genuinely curious of people and their motivations—interests that she feels helps her to boldly reject status quo in the pursuit of launching successful initiatives to support the organization’s mission. With two daughters, she feels proud to serve in a role that will help so many young girls find their voice echoing in rooms that they otherwise never thought they could speak.
Alicia Thunell, Chief Operations Specialist
Alicia Thunell joined Project Scientist in 2020 as the St. Paul Market Lead. She believes the value and importance of the mission and vision Project Scientist has set out to achieve. She has a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Criminal Justice and a Master’s in Business Administration with Technology Management. She understands the challenges girls face in STEM and believes Project Scientist is an amazing opportunity to inspire girls to succeed. As a mother to two girls, she has actively participated and lead programs for youth academics and wellness programs to ensure all girls have the confidence to transform their goals into realities. Before coming to Project Scientist, Alicia worked in Healthcare Operations and Information Technology. She brings over 20 years of program leadership that will contribute to the development of the St. Paul market and ultimately great success for girls in STEM.
Rebecca Sims, National Program Director
As a Kentucky native, Rebecca attended the University of Kentucky, where she received degrees in Natural Resource Conservation and Soil Science, and the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, where she completed graduate work in Plant Biology. Throughout college and graduate school, Rebecca coupled her coursework with outreach opportunities. Through these opportunities, she gained an expanded understanding on the issues that prevail in STEM education across all self-identifiers, particularly those related to gender. She became more aware that issues of gender and equity can affect students despite their aptitudes and interests in STEM fields. Rebecca is passionate about fixing these leaking pipelines early, and giving a young and diverse community an opportunity to explore their STEM curiosities and view a different future for themselves as she once had the opportunity to do. Rebecca is delighted at the opportunity to be a part of the amazing Project Scientist team where through advocacy, mentorship and education we can create a community where all children thrive!
Kelly O'Brien, Business Office Specialist
Kelly O'Brien has served on the Project Scientist team as our Office Coordinator, since 2016. Over her entire adult life, Kelly has lived her passion for education and for children. Working in education for more than 10 years, Kelly has taught Kindergarten, 4th grade, 6th grade and 8th grade. More recently, Kelly has managed administration and logistics for a property investment start-up. A Northern California native, Kelly moved to Southern California more than 15 years ago to pursue tertiary education. Kelly holds a single subject and multiple subject teaching credential; an MA in Education involving post graduate work at Chapman University and the National University; and a BA in English Literature with a minor in Deaf Education from California State University, Fullerton. A passionate athlete, Kelly believes deeply in fostering an active lifestyle from childhood. Kelly has coached children's soccer and softball and currently, leads a running group for children. Kelly and her husband have distinguished themselves as advocates for children and have elected to invest in an arts and healing program for children of incarcerated parents, founded in their belief that children of all socioeconomic backgrounds and life circumstances deserve equal opportunities to education and educational support programs. Kelly is a married, mother of two and lives in Laguna Beach, California.
Pia Grace Torres, Communications Specialist
Pia serves as the communications specialist for Project Scientist, advocating for girls and women in STEM in the community. She is passionate about philanthropy, and has been volunteering for different organizations since she was 6 years old. Her love for philanthropy paired with her zeal for communication led her to being the marketing manager for Project Scientist.
She began her communications career interning for a multitude of organizations, including Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach, FOX Broadcasting and FX Networks. While interning and studying at Long Beach State, she also led as the Long Beach chapter president of PRSSA, a professional organization dedicated to providing resources and opportunities for public relations students. She has been recognized as a leader in communications, winning the “OCPRSA Shining Star Emerging Leader Award” and the Long Beach State “Professional Promise in Public Relations Award.”
Pia is thrilled to have the opportunity to pair her love for philanthropy with her passion for communication to serve as Project Scientist’s marketing manager, aiding in Project Scientist’s mission to empower girls to follow their dreams.
Candy Alvarado, Administrative Associate & West Coast Site Director
Candy joined the Project Scientist team in 2016 where she began teaching the preK-Kinder class. Driven by the mission of Project Scientist to deliver a diverse and high quality STEM academy she returned the following summer as a site director at Caltech. Her passion for teaching and delivering high quality instruction began early on as she received a degree in Liberal Studies and a Multiple Subject Credential from Cal State Long Beach. She worked as a teacher for 12 years in Los Angeles taking on leadership roles. While mentoring student teachers from both CSDH and CSLB Candy completed a certification program from the University of Irvine in Math and Science. Through this program Candy discovered a new interest in STEM. Today Candy is a mother of two: a nine-year-old daughter who wants to be a neuroscientist thanks to Project Scientist and a six-year-old son that also partakes in STEM activities. Candy is an active member in her community and a leader to her daughter’s Girl Scout Troop. Committed to closing the gender gap she seizes any opportunity to drive and spark interest in STEM!
Kierstin Barry, Education and Administrative Coordinator
As the lab facilitator at Project Scientist The Virtual Lab, Kierstin Barry inspires girls ages 4-12 to follow their passion for STEM. She leads girls through their online school courses and enhances their learning with hands-on science, math games, outdoor time including beach trips and hikes, art, and maker space opportunities.
Barry holds a B.S. in Physiology and Neuroscience with a minor in Education Studies from the University of California, San Diego. For the past several summers, Barry has assisted Project Scientist camp directors, teachers, and other summer fellows in creating an enriching and exciting STEM environment by supervising classrooms, leading experiments, and coordinating with local STEM leaders to get involved. She has taught science and math curriculums to girls in several age groups.
Barry joined the staff of Project Scientist because she’s seen firsthand how life-changing STEM role models can be to young women. “Women have great potential not only to thrive in STEM but to revolutionize these fields,” she says. “Far too few young women are able to see their potential for STEM careers. I’m excited to be a part of an organization that’s changing that dynamic, and propelling intelligent and creative young women into fields that really need them.”