11 February 2011
From microfossils to second-graders: Confessions of a researcher-turned-educator
Guest post by Phoebe Cohen, Education and Outreach Lead & Postdoctoral Fellow, MIT NASA Astrobiology Team.
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?
So proud of you, PC! As non-scientist, it’s such a gift when the science-minded take the time and effort to communicate their ideas and theories. What could be more important than education?
Thank you for your continued support Sarah! (not to mention your cameo…)
You are truly making a difference! When I got back to school and told the second graders what I had learned on Wednesday about magnetic fields on other planets and the moon – every hand was up to ask a question. Talk about engaging and inspiring!
Thanks Brittany! So glad you could make the workshop last week – I’ll be talking about it in my next blog post 🙂
Let’s hope your ‘outing’ will encourage colleagues to choose the same ‘track’!
Thanks Manuel! Fingers crossed…
Congratulations for entering the world of children and helping them to imagine what it will be like to become a scientist one day. I left the hospital administration world for middle school teaching and people thought I’d lost my mind. They thought I was abandoning my intellectual persuits and would turn into jello. Well, they’re partially correct….I can’t do the kind of financial calculations that I used to do on a the back of a napkin.
But I feel like I’ve spent the last 20 years doing something really much more positive. I’ve invested in the next generation, trying to make sure they fall in love with science and math and giving them the imagination/curosity to go out and ask the quesitons…finding answers as often as they can.
It would have been much easier to stay in science the way that most people think about it. But you’ve chosen a path where you walk the line to do good in both worlds. I know that I struggle to find real scientists that make earth science more accessible for younger kids….the life science people seem to be better at this….and I think the earth sciences can be just as cool. Kids do too if we give them the stories/ideas behind all the science and show them how it’s their world they walk around in everyday.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Thanks for the comment Marsha! I really hope that I can continue to exist in both worlds and “do good”.
You are making significant impacts both as a scientist and as a communicator Phoebe. We should, and do, value both kinds of contributions equally highly. Ultimately, it will be the doors that open in response to each of your activities that will determine where you find most fulfillment and guide your career.
[…] Dr. Phoebe Cohen received her undergraduate degree in Science of Earth Systems from Cornell University, and her Ph.D. in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Harvard University. She’s also a former Science Club for Girls mentor. Read more about her transition from full time researcher to predominant time educator here. […]