How would you like a job where you are given a reasonable budget and the freedom to use your imagination, your creativity, AND your scientific training to the fullest? Who wouldn't, and that's how I describe mine. How would you like a job where Monday you are enticing first-graders with the wonders of scientific discovery, Tuesday you are working on a research project with an undergraduate summer student, Wednesday you are designing a cutting-edge interactive Web page, Thursday you are building Lego flywheel-powered cars to teach middle school science teachers the basics of rotation, and Friday you are putting the finishing touches on the 2-week workshop you created for high school teachers that helps them introduce contemporary scientific topics to their students? That's my job (though of course I work on all of those projects and more every single day). Welcome to the world of education and outreach.
I didn't plan it this way. I thought I was getting my Ph.D. in physics, then off to a few years of a postdoc, and finally to a standard research career. Whoops. There were signs along the way that I'd end up doing something nontraditional, but I couldn't see them. With hindsight, I realize now that it was perfectly obvious that I'd end up here. I just needed someone or something to open my eyes to this.
That someone showed up during the first year of my research postdoc. She was a junior at a large urban high school and I agreed to work with her for 8 weeks as part of the laboratory's Science Education Program. Noone told me that I would find the experience as enriching as she did. No one told me that it would profoundly change my career path.
Her project was to write a computer code to display data in real-time in the control room of a fusion energy reactor. I figured I'd quickly explain the project, hand her a manual or two and step out of the way. Yeah right.
She had never written a computer code before. She was bright, but she was far behind the other high school students working at the lab that summer. Her school was not providing her with the education she craved and she was literally starving for it. So we worked together on her code and her analytical skills in general. She soaked up knowledge like a sponge and it was so fulfilling to help her, to watch her go "Ah, ha!" By the end of the summer, she wrote the code and we used it well after that summer ended. My colleagues and I started taking it for granted, forgetting about when we didn't have this data displayed for us.
It would be a crime if she went back to her school. So I made some connections, made some phone calls, wrote some letters, and got her an interview at a private prep school. They were willing to accept her and even give her a full scholarship, but only if she was willing to repeat the 11th grade. That's a tough decision for a 16-year-old to make. But anyone that starving to learn has no choice. She left her school friends behind and became a boarding student. She struggled at first, really struggled. Then she almost made the honor role. Then she made it. She was on it every semester after that.
She got into a wonderful university. Pre-med. Again she struggled at first. Again she was on the dean's list a short time later. She was one of three students given an early acceptance to medical school during her junior year. Today, she is a second-year medical student on her way to becoming a doctor.
This young woman was going to succeed with or without me. But I had the opportunity to help her along her way. If I did nothing else in education, I knew I would always have this experience. I was hooked now. The feeling of opening a young person's eyes is addicting.
My grant money began to dry up soon after my first experience in the Science Education Program, and I bounced around from one project to another for the next 2 years. Overall funding was scarce, permanent research jobs were few. At this point, the young woman I worked with had just made it onto the dean's list for the first time and I wanted to let my friends in the Science Education Program know. Turns out they were just then looking for a scientist to work with them full time. I jumped at the chance without a moment's hesitation, never looking back. As it turns out, the drying up of my research grants was the best thing that could have happened.
Now I try to do a little bit of research when I can. I miss it some, too. But vacuum pumps don't smile. Power supplies don't say "Ah, ha!" Let me tell you, helping a student learn is one of the most rewarding things you could ever do with your scientific training. You don't have to do it formally like I do. Call up your local elementary school and offer to bring in some of your "toys" for an hour or so. Go ahead, I dare you. You'll never, ever regret it.