Seeking the warm spot: My nonlinear career path in science writing and education

by Stephanie Chasteen on February 29, 2012

I was recently invited to write an article for the Agora blog on women and science on my career path.  The resulting article is on their blog, but I am cross-posting it here for y’all:

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I’ve spent a lot of my life worrying about what to do for a job.  I’ve had so many interests, I felt like I might be dooming myself to an unsatisfying life if I picked the “wrong” one.  I want to outline the path of my career, because it looks a bit like a random walk.  Career “paths” are not necessarily linear.  I let my attention be drawn by interesting things – I looked for the “warm spot” – even though I wasn’t sure where it might necessarily lead.

Here’s an analogy.   Bacteria — thermophilic or acidophilic bacteria, for example — do not “know” that the hot spot or acidic island is “over there.” They have no overall map of their surroundings to direct their movement in a straight line towards what they seek. What they sense instead is a local gradient — a small change, right next to them. It’s a little warmer that way. They move slightly. They feel it out again. Move. Feel. Move. And feel. The resulting path is a somewhat jagged, but non-random, path toward the thing that they love. Similarly, my path has moved me in a good direction, but not one that I could have anticipated.

I currently work as a consultant and contractor, working on various educational projects and grants to do evaluation, write about science for teachers, and create educational activities.  Specialization is very useful in many careers, for certain — but in my case, diversification has been incredibly powerful.  I wish that someone had told me this earlier, so that I hadn’t worried so much about trying to pick a single area of focus.

 THE SCIENCE PEDIGREE:  THE PHYSICS PHD

The PhD was difficult, but I did stick it out.  In part, my heart wasn’t in the research.  While I’m detail-minded, somehow the details and care of research just didn’t fit with my passions.  This is something that I hear from many people who love science, but not the rigors of research.

I began to wonder if I should change my career track. I read books and attended conferences to learn more about science journalism – something that clearly blended my interests in science and writing.  I posed the question to many writers: “Should I finish the degree?” I was told that in some places, the doctorate might count against me, since I would be numbered among the lost souls who could no longer communicate with regular people. But for the most part, people looked slightly wistful. “Finish it,” they told me. “It will open doors.”

 COMMUNICATION:   NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO AND SCIENCE JOURNALISM

Me with Alison Richards, David Kestenbaum, and Jon Hamilton

So, I settled in for the long haul to complete the degree, and I did.  And, for the record, it did open doors.   But I kept myself inspired by learning more about science journalism.  I enrolled in a science journalism class, and wrote some stories for the local paper to get experience and publications.  I wrote for free for a local news service.  I was awarded a fellowship with the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows program, where I was placed at the science desk at NPR, in Washington, D.C.  NPR was a dream internship, and I learned the high standards of excellence of national science reporting, and developed a deep love for audio production.

If you want more information about my experience in science journalism, you can see my previous blog post on the topic here:  http://blog.sciencegeekgirl.com/2010/01/05/how-a-scientist-becomes-a-freelance-science-writer/

INSPIRATION:  THE EXPLORATORIUM MUSEUM OF SCIENCE

Me and the other two postdocs at the museum

Soon after receiving my PhD, I heard that the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception (http://exploratorium.edu) was seeking a PhD physicist for a postdoc. I got the job and accepted enthusiastically, even though it represented a definitive career shift away from traditional science journalism and toward science education.  I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed – the Exploratorium has an unparalleled reputation among science museums, and I just had a good feeling about the place.  And it was a good decision; the Exploratorium made my career, both in terms of lending its’ prestige to my resume, and shaping my views and priorities.

At the museum, I discovered a passion for science education.  My job was to create hands-on activities and workshops for K12 teachers and I was constantly inspired by my colleagues and the teachers I worked with.  I decided that I wanted to work in education rather than journalism, because the potential for impact was so great.

But I also knew that my expertise in education was thin.  I knew that the things we did at the Exploratorium worked, but I didn’t know why.  If I wanted to have a career in education, I needed more training.  As one colleague put it:  “It sounds like you want to be an education activist.  But you should consider becoming an informed activist.”

But I didn’t want to get a master’s degree in education, just like I didn’t want to get a master’s degree in journalism.  Could I find a shortcut to experience, as I had with the Mass Media Fellowship?

 A SCHOLARLY APPROACH TO EDUCATION:  THE SCIENCE EDUCATION INITIATIVE

As it turned out, there was such a place, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  The Science Education Initiative (http://colorado.edu/sei) (created by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman) was seeking a physics PhD to work to transform undergraduate science classes using what we know about effective science education.  I would get training in the methods and literature of science education, and be embedded within the physics education research group.  I’ve been in the SEI for about 4 years, and it’s done the job that I wanted it to do for me – I am well-versed in the education research literature, and have conducted various studies and assessments on educational techniques.  I’ve also worked to ply my expertise in communication, creating videos and podcasts for teachers about effective educational techniques.

 

A LEAP OF FAITH:  MY OWN BUSINESS

So, all of this diverse training and experience then still begged the question – what did I want to do with my life?   I was in my mid-thirties and had the experience that I wanted, but what should I do with it?

Several years ago, I started working with the National Science Digital Library (http://nsdl.org) to produce podcasts for teachers (http://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/beyond-penguins-polar-bears/id391602338)/  I loved this work, which combined my education and communication backgrounds, and was making good money.  This made me wonder; who else had interesting projects that I could help with?

It was a slow build, but gradually word got out that I was interested in contract work.  I have now had many diverse clients (see http://sciencegeekgirl.com/resume.html) and have been quite successful in this originally uncertain venture.

 SEEKING THE WARM SPOT

I was never sure where any of my interests would lead me – psychology, writing, physics, education, education research – but I sensed what felt “warm”, what sparked my passion, and explored it.  I think it’s so important to explore the things that we find fascinating, because that exploration can lead to great things.  I could not have predicted, when I struggled to decide between physics and psychology, that I would end up as an independent businesswoman making my own path. But I looked at an integral, or practiced writing about solar cells, or worked with teachers, and something perked up inside me. That way, it’s a little warmer that way. And I took a step.

Below are some collections of my favorite books on these topics:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

aparrella February 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Stephanie, I am a Physics teacher, from Maldonado, Uruguay.
I have been reading your blog, and I follow your posts in Facebook. I always find them very interesting, but particullary this one, I think it is important that our secondary school students read it.
I see that many of my students feels like you describe at the beggining of the post: “I felt like I might be dooming myself to an unsatisfying life if I picked the “wrong” one”. I talk with them about what they want to study, at university, and they show the same feeling; If they make a choice, they will be prisoners of this choice.
I wrote a small post in my blog, about your amazing job in order to encourage everybody to stopping by in your website.
Thank you for sharing your ideas, make us think about them.
alejandro
PS. Please forgive me if I have made some language mistakes.

Stephanie Chasteen March 7, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Thanks for the comment, Alejandro. I really like the phrase, “prisoners of this choice” — that is exactly what I was trying to describe, and I even borrowed your phrasing in a recent talk!
Stephanie

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