11 February 2011

From microfossils to second-graders: Confessions of a researcher-turned-educator

Posted by

Guest post by Phoebe Cohen, Education and Outreach Lead & Postdoctoral Fellow, MIT NASA Astrobiology Team.

Phoebe Cohen kneeling on some stromatolites in Australia, working on a 'virtual field trip' on the evolution of complex life. (Photo courtesy of Phoebe Cohen)

I am a paleontologist by training, and an informal science educator by choice. I’m currently in a post-doc position that lets me do both, but I dedicate three quarters of my time to the educator role, an anomaly in the world of research science. Why, you might ask, would I leave a life of deciphering the early evolution of complex life for a life of “outreach” – running workshops, talking to second-graders, and sitting in on innumerable conference calls?

The quick answer is that I now feel a part of something bigger than myself. It’s not about my resume, my citations, my tenure package. It’s about promoting scientific thinking, broadening participation, and connecting with individuals.  I love communicating, especially about science. One of my proudest moments came when taking a walk with a dear friend (a lawyer) and explaining to her a (failed) fellowship proposal. It involved complex and multidisciplinary concepts, and she hadn’t taken a science class since high school. But after a mile or two of wandering the brownstone-lined streets of Boston’s South End, she got it. And she didn’t just nod and smile to get me to shut up about the oxygen tolerance of sponges – she asked questions that revealed true understanding*. She had internalized scientific concepts that may have never otherwise entered her mind. It was awesome.

Another thing that drives me to pursue outreach as a career instead of as an on-the-side pursuit was my childhood. Growing up with a biologist father and a psychologist mother, science was an everyday thing. Ranger Rick and National Geographic came in the mail every month, visits to science museums were frequent, and my curiosity was encouraged. As an adult, I often see kids at science museums with their noses stuck up against the glass, gazing at some extinct cephalopod or pterosaur, their minds churning with curiosity. Suddenly, an agitated parent grabs them by the hand and pulls them away down the hall, admonishing them for lingering. So many kids don’t have the supportive and engaging parents I did. We owe it to those kids to help them discover and nurture their own fascination with the natural world, whether it is a fascination that leads to a career in science or simply a lifetime subscription to National Geographic.

The response to my career turn by those in my field has been fascinating. Many people are excited, encouraging me to use my communication and people skills, affirming that I am doing something worthy and admirable. Others are confused. At one point at a conference this fall (over a poster session beer, I’m sure) an acquaintance said something along the lines of: “Weird. I thought you’d have some sweet post doc somewhere, or a job”. While such comments are in one way flattering, they can also be hard to hear. Have I done the right thing? Are the friends who attempt to coax me into applying for tenure-track jobs doing it because they think I’m making a mistake, or because doing anything else is unimaginable? And how do I deal with my sense of responsibility, as a woman in science, to increase our presence along the tenure track?

I love science. Much of the time, I love research. But taking this position is a way for me to step back from ‘the track’. I’m meeting incredible people doing incredible things. I’m still getting to publish papers and spend a little time in the lab. And when I read about the fact that minorities are woefully underperforming in the sciences and that Intelligent Design is again making its way into state legislatures, I’m not just grumbling at the bad news on my laptop screen. Instead, I’m doing something, however small (OK, often while grumbling), to work against those forces.

[* My lawyer friend asked questions such as “so, by looking at how the animals react to low oxygen in the lab you might be able to say something about the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere?”. The answer is, as of now, “We don’t know, maybe!”.]

Phoebe Cohen lives in “our fair city”, Cambridge MA, where she informally educates, studies tiny fossils, and takes photos of things. Her next post: What is outreach anyway? And how do we make it meaningful?