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Careers in Teaching: Pursuing a Less Traditional Career Path





As I walk through the hallways of Buckingham Browne and Nichols (BB&N) School every morning, I am energized by the activity that fills them. Students bound into the building, toting lacrosse sticks, softball bats, and backpacks loaded down with books. As their numbers grow, so does the noise level, and by 8:05 the student centers are filled with adolescents who are either working on homework they didn't finish or catching up on the previous night's episode of Dawson's Creek.

By 8:10, 400 students are scrambling to get to morning assembly or adviser group meetings. Here they receive last-minute information about schedule changes, club meetings, and sports activities that will help them to successfully navigate through their day, which officially begins with classes at 8:35 and ends after team practice. Each morning, my decision to teach high school biology full time and to perform university research part time is reaffirmed, and I am invigorated by the challenges that this combined career brings.

I got hooked on biology when I was 12 years old. My biology teacher assigned the class to draw a cell, and I was amazed by its structure and organization. As I continued through high school, undergraduate and graduate school, my interest in biology grew, while my field of expertise narrowed--a natural progression in the pursuit of higher education. During this hectic time, I was committed to maintaining balance in my life. One way in which I achieved this was to become involved with activities outside of the laboratory. I chose to volunteer with a youth leadership organization in Massachusetts that sponsors seminars to promote leadership skills in high school students. My involvement included working on coordinating committees and mentoring students, and culminated in my serving on the association's board of directors for several years. I ended my volunteerism when the demands of graduate school grew too great, and I never got reinvolved as a postdoctoral fellow because of the lack of time. This experience was invaluable though, because it permitted me to gain insight into management and organizational development outside of the laboratory, and it established that I could effectively work with adolescents. I would later rely upon this experience when marketing myself as a specialist with broad interests and skill.

Shortly after ending my volunteer affiliation, I began writing my doctoral dissertation and investigating next steps for my career. Because I was supported by graduate teaching fellowships for four of my five years at the University of Massachusetts, I knew that I enjoyed teaching as much as performing research. I considered pursuing a career teaching at the collegiate level, but there were few positions available for individuals lacking postdoctoral research experience. It seemed that a postdoctoral fellowship was an obligatory rite of passage, so I began searching for a fellowship which suited my skills and interest. I was excited by the offers I received, and I ultimately accepted a fellowship at the Boston University School of Medicine. I used my postdoctoral fellowship as an opportunity to expand my research skills and to better define the balance of teaching and research I wanted to pursue throughout my career.

Like most postdoctoral fellows, I was completely immersed in research during my first year. By the beginning of the second year, I was writing grant applications and preparing to attend conferences to present my work. Something was missing though, and my thoughts drifted back toward teaching and my work with high school students. I began to gather information about teaching as if I were planning an experiment that required preliminary investigations, fieldwork, and feasibility testing.

My preliminary investigations and part of my fieldwork were performed unwittingly as a graduate teaching assistant and during my postdoctoral fellowship. As a teaching assistant, I worked with numerous professors, and I learned several ways to design curricula and to write comprehensive exams. I also marveled at the way my graduate and postdoctoral mentors maintained a fine balance between extraordinary teaching and exemplary research. I was aware of the challenges they faced, and this stimulated me to reflect upon the educational process at both the collegiate and high school level. I concluded that at the collegiate level, it was the student's responsibility to learn whereas at the high school level, it was the educator's responsibility to teach. I decided that if I were to teach, I wanted to be challenged by the responsibility to educate. It became clear to me that this responsibility was rooted at the high school level. Consider the fact that depending on a student's course of study, the only opportunity one might have to enroll in a biology course is during their high school education. My own sister, a corporate trainer with an M.B.A., and my husband, an electrical engineer pursuing a Ph.D., are cases in point.

My fieldwork involved determining the types of teaching opportunities that were available at the high school level and finding out how high school and collegiate-level biology curricula differed. I asked friends and family if they knew high school biology teachers at public, independent, or parochial schools, and I followed up every lead with a request for an informational interview or classroom visit. I was particularly interested in speaking to Ph.D.-level scientists teaching at the high school level, as veering off of the "traditional trajectory"--Ph.D., postdoc, professorship--weighed heavily in the back of my mind. The classroom visits made me aware of how schools varied in their equipment, space, and class sizes, and how these variables impacted the way biology was taught on a daily basis. This helped me narrow the field of potential employers to independent high schools with rigorous academic standards. I was able to learn about various schools by enrolling with a placement organization that matches prospective teachers with potential independent schools across the country. This was extremely helpful since I was interested in learning about schools and positions located in both Boston and Atlanta. Because the agency informed me when they sent my dossier to a school, I was able to investigate whether the school's educational environment was conducive to that which I sought to be in. I did this by researching the schools, speaking to the school's admission director, or by visiting the school's Web site prior to my pursuing the opportunity for employment.

My feasibility testing involved searching for new opportunities to volunteer with high school students. Although I had volunteered with high school students during undergraduate and graduate school, it was not related to science and I hadn't worked with that age group for several years. I learned that CityLab, a biotechnology learning center for high school students, was located at the Boston University School of Medicine, just a few minutes from the lab where I was doing my postdoctoral research. I met with the director of CityLab and offered my services one afternoon each week for 8 weeks. As luck would have it, spring science fair season was fast approaching, and my willingness to donate time was a welcome relief for the CityLab staff. In helping students develop experiments for their projects, I was both intrigued and amused by the questions they addressed. One project I mentored addressed whether antibacterial soap was more effective at inhibiting bacterial growth than regular soap. The student diluted liquid soap in sterile water and performed titrations to determine the minimum concentration of each brand that inhibits bacterial growth. The student presented her work in terms of the relative effectiveness of each soap and their cost. My work at CityLab reassured me that I enjoyed working with adolescents and that science at this level could be thought-provoking, innovative, and fun.

When I decided to accept a full-time science faculty position at Buckingham Browne and Nichols School, I knew that my research would not be completed by the start of the academic year. I discussed several options with my mentor, and she agreed to keep me on as a part-time Research Associate in order for me to complete my work. I subsequently published my initial research, but my work in the laboratory has continued. We have maintained this arrangement for the past 2 years, where I am in the lab between 10 and 30 hours each month during the academic year and full time during the summer months. Last summer, I mentored a new graduate student in the laboratory who has taken on an avenue of my research, and I am looking forward to another productive summer in the lab beginning in just a few weeks.

My experience as a teacher at BB&N has been fantastic. I teach three sections of Introductory Biology, a mandatory course for all freshmen, and one section of Experimental Biology, a senior-level course designed to teach students lab skills that they can apply to independent investigations. I am challenged by students at each level because they expect me to have answers to all of their questions, or reasons as to why the answers are unknown. As a teacher, I employ many of the same skills I honed as a Research Associate, because the students challenge me to devise multiple ways to present each topic so that they can reach an "ah-hah" of understanding. My role at BB&N has rapidly evolved during the past 2 years. I have progressed from being a new teacher learning the ropes of the school to serving on committees that address the school's educational and disciplinary policies. I have recently been selected by the administration of the school to serve as the Dean of Students for the sophomore class, providing me the opportunity to work with the other deans to address broader issues surrounding student life at the school. My primary goal as an educator is to help students understand the biology that surrounds them on a daily basis. In pursuing a less traditional career path, I am able to achieve this goal while engaging in a creative research experience which provides a balance that is just perfect for me.