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A Non-Traditional Science Postdoc

Last week, I taught a 7-year-old about magnetic fields using fridge magnets and metal filings. The week before, I made mysterious green goo with 9-year-olds. Next month, I’ll be doing forensic hair analysis with the public. This is not the job description of your typical science postdoc. But then, mine is not your typical postdoc.

My position is the result of a collaboration between the Buffalo Museum of Science and Buffalo State College. I spend about half my time at the college doing traditional postdoc work--in my case, carrying out genetic and life-history research--and half of my time at the museum, where I develop, secure funding for, and--as much as I can find time for--take part in science communication projects.

Adding a level of meaning to research

I find that interacting with the public through the museum gives my research an added level of meaning. I get to tell the public about my work directly, and sometimes I can even get kids involved in real scientific research. Currently, I am developing an educational program where middle school students identify earthworm species in their backyards, schoolyards, and natural areas in Western New York. An interactive Web site will allow them to share their findings with other schools in the area and produce maps of worm populations. The findings will be scientifically relevant, as little is known about the distribution of earthworms in the region.

But the project has additional value beyond producing scientific data: Working with a scientist on real research helps students understand the process of science and to view science as a viable career option. And the learning goes both ways. Each day I spend at the museum I learn something new, something I would not have learned in a laboratory.

The best part: I’ve been able to do all of this without turning my back on research and academia. Between my museum duties, I continue to carry out research and publish my results. It’s the best of both worlds for me, and it makes a whole lot of sense for the college and the museum. The college gains a researcher who can effectively communicate their research to the public, while the museum gains a working scientist with first-hand knowledge of how research is done.

I didn’t set out to find such an unusual academic position. Graduate school was so all-consuming that I had given little serious thought to what I would do after I had my diploma in-hand. I published several articles in respected journals and graduated from a top program. My advisors assured me that I would have no difficulty securing a postdoc position in a well-respected lab. But with the completion of my Ph.D. studies approaching, I realized that the thought of a traditional postdoc--more years during which all my time would be spent in the laboratory--didn’t appeal to me. I like research, but I needed something more. While I was a graduate student, I spent time with an organization that traveled to elementary and middle schools putting on science-related demonstrations. It was so much fun that I wondered if I could make a career out of science communication. But I was hesitant to leave academia altogether.

To be honest, I entered this postdoc with more than a little apprehension. Many of my colleagues were surprised that I would consider a position at a small college with no Ph.D. program. And they had a point: Much of the time that I could have devoted to producing scientific publications is spent on other pursuits. Sometimes my research has proceeded with frustrating slowness because of museum commitments. Furthermore, I am on the museum’s 9 to 5 schedule, but my organisms are not. So it is true that, compared with a traditional postdoc, this job will probably make it more difficult for me to get a professorship at a major research institution. But as I leave the familiar world of my doctorate program and return to the real world, I realize that I don’t need to go down the traditional path. I’ve realized that it's okay to take a less-traveled road.

Acquiring non-traditional skills

As far as my career is concerned, I am acquiring skills not normally associated with traditional postdocs. I am becoming an expert at writing grants for science education and I’ve learned quite a bit about fundraising. I’ve learned to multitask, to explain technical research using simple language, and to think like a 7-year-old. These experiences and skills, I believe, will open doors to career opportunities within and outside academia. When those opportunities arise, I will be prepared for them.

There are, of course, some difficulties in working at two organizations that do vastly different things. Since I didn’t easily fit a defined category at the college, getting an ID card, computer support, and a parking permit were challenging. Due to a miscommunication, I was overpaid for the first few months of my employment, which was fine by me--until they asked for the extra money back. And having two places of employment meant that the usual complications associated with a new job--keys, office space, finding the nearest bathroom--are doubled. There have been days in which I have had to travel between college and museum several times to attend meetings, feed my organisms, and take part in a science outreach program at the museum. Yet for me, the hassle of juggling commitments to two institutions is a small price to pay for the opportunity to continue my research while contributing to the public’s understanding of science.

Many postdocs find the time to volunteer at their local after-school club, write popular science articles, or serve on a local science board--efforts that are valuable to both their professions and their communities. But, because pressure to produce scientific publications can be overwhelming, many postdocs simply do not have the time to communicate their research to the public, or to do other worthwhile work. Others lack the confidence and training to work with children and the public. This is unfortunate; scientists are the most qualified to teach science--and the process of doing science--no matter who the audience is. Postdoctoral positions that combine research and science communication offer the public access to a working scientist, while allowing the scientist to gain skills outside research. It's a win-win.

If there is a need to increase communication between scientists and the public--and there is--and if I am not the only one who wants more from life than the lab can offer--and I know I am not--then creative collaborations between higher education institutions and science-communication organizations have great potential. Recently, a number of universities and foundations have started programs where postdocs spend a good portion of their time teaching. This is a step in the right direction, but there is much more that can be done, so I hope that postdocs like mine will become more common. I envision more positions combining research with science writing, teaching, zoo work, or--like me--work in a science museum. It just makes sense to train people to be good scientists and good communicators.

Postdoc Meghan Guinnee splits her time between the Buffalo Museum of Science and Buffalo State College. She can be reached at