14 July 2011

Eye on the prize

Hey guys, guess what? I have a day job! With all this talky-talky about homemaking projects we can all sometimes forget that I spend a third of my life working on an entirely different career that isn’t discussed much here. Partly because I wouldn’t ever want to be dooced but also because, quite frankly, it’s less fun to hear about, and therefore write about.

Still. My thesis and all the hours of research and paper-reading and writing and networking that go along with it are quite a big project, right? Enough to encompass several spots on the 30 by 30 list. I realize that many of you are coming here for ideas regarding artful application of spraypaint, but I’m writing here to document all the things I’m working on. That includes my graduate work, and so I think I should occasionally point out that what I normally write about here are the side projects, not the other way around.

(Although if you are interested in spraypaint, I heartily invite you to come back on Saturday. It’s a date!)

So! I’m on track to graduate sometime this year, I think. I hope. Which means I have become quite introspective about what I’m going to do now that I’m a grownup. I mean, I must be by now, right? I have pretended for years that I am not really a grownup, but now I am married and have almost completed a Ph.D and while there are sometimes precocious kids who do one of those things, I have yet to find one that has done both. I cannot pretend any longer. I have to be a grownup and I have to have a job.

When it comes to a career, I am 90% sure I don’t want to do bench science my whole life. I am equally sure I don’t want to run a lab. I could probably be convinced otherwise if the opportunity just magically fell into my lap, but because those opportunities never ever just “fall into the lap” of someone who didn’t bust their rear trying to get it, I don’t think that’s what I’ll do. And honestly I am not interested enough in that career to try that hard to get it.

The problem is that my graduate career has set me up well for a job that includes running a lab and bench science, precisely the job I don’t really want. It’s not for lack of letting me know about the opportunities outside research academia – it’s just the climate of scientific research. This is a job that involves doing whatever is needed to be the best. Not just for prestige or papers in the top journals, but for funding purposes. If you do not strive to be the best, you may lose your funding and consequently lose your job. It is competitive. There just isn’t a lot of time to devote to mentoring future scientists or helping the public understand why what we do is important. It’s, will this micrograph be an important figure in a paper? Will this result help get my grant funded? Will this experiment push the boundaries of our scientific knowledge the teensiest bit further?

I am... not interested in doing that forever. It is okay now. Just not forever.

I think I am better at teaching, or more specifically, outreach and mentoring. I like explaining to people that don’t know much or anything about science why science is awesome. I enjoy explaining why genetically modified fruit won’t change your genes, why you can’t “believe” in evolution or global warming, why cancer is so hard to cure, and why the fact that we are even walking around and talking about science today is pretty darn miraculous, on the molecular level. I want to help people (students, perhaps) gain the confidence to ask those questions and make scientific arguments themselves. I wonder if some people in research academia think that my earning a Ph.D was consequently a waste – that I didn’t need a Ph.D to do that. I would argue otherwise. The skills I have gained earning my degree are crucial for that sort of job. In order to be a good liaison between scientists and laypeople, I have to be able to read and understand the primary scientific literature, so that I can accurately but artfully communicate it to people who may not be able to do so.

When it comes to busting my rear for a job, that is the sort of job that would be worth it. That is the sort of career where I would fight to be the best.

I have to remind myself of this often, because I spend a lot of time bogged down in the day-to-day drudgery of lab. However, a recent discovery I made – not in the lab, but while cleaning out my office – has really helped me keep my focus where I want it to be.

You see, for all my mediocrity in the international institution of Academic Science, I was totally the Hermione of my college, complete with the constantly studying and top marks and bushy hair. Sure, it was a small town state university in my hometown without a Fulbright Scholar in sight, but that just means that reaching the top was actually attainable, and working hard was extra rewarding. It also means that I grew up literally two houses down from the much-loved Chancellor of my university. They called him Chancellor, I called him Mr. Nick. And every semester that I made honor roll, he wrote a handwritten personal note on the form letter the Chancellor’s office sent to all the honor-rollees, from my very first semester:

And each semester thereafter:

And a lovely sentiment when I graduated:

Finding these made me giddy all over again, perhaps even more giddy than when I first received the letters almost ten years ago. Isn’t Mr. Nick adorable? I have no idea if he hand-wrote notes on everyone’s letters. I do know I wasn't the only one. I hope it was everyone’s.

These letters are now my reminder that I was once capable of doing whatever I decided to do. Honestly? I’d forgotten, with all the pressure to be world-class and then not quite making the cut and coming to terms with my mediocrity and realizing that a career in research means always have to fight this hard. It was great to remember that once, I thrived. And maybe? Maybe my goal shouldn’t involve clawing my way to become a successful scientist. Maybe it should be to thrive.

I think the world could use more Mr. Nicks. Now that I'm on the other side of my education, I want to be one too. I want to let people know they have the capacity to be world-class if they choose. I want to have the opportunity to provide encouragement from a position of authority. I want to help budding scientists go out and see where they fit into the world. It is super great to be out here, actually, with the amazing thinkers and doers. And it is also – equally, I stress – great to help others find their way out here, too.


Rachel C said...

Of all the science related Scholars projects and forums I heard, yours was the only one I ever understood. I remember being excited (and thankful) that you explained everthing so non-science people could understand. I think you will rock in your future career.

And, thanks for the wonderful reminder of Mr/Chancellor Nick. He is great. :-)

Tina said...

I'm linking this one to Fb - with tears of gratitude and good memories... thanks for the tribute to our thoughtful once-upon-a-time neighbor...

Tina said...

Dooce has had two since Leta??? Knew it'd been a while since I'd checked in, but not that long... back before an engagement now that I think about it... =/ LIFE interrupted...

Miranda said...

Wonderful post!

Anonymous said...

I love you. I always knew you would grow into an awesome young lady. Your words make me very proud. I am teaching a class of teachers this week at UTM. I am going to this with them.

Love, Mr. Tim

Julia said...

I do believe you have just written yourself into a career. You know what you need to do in order to make others feel great and worthwhile. Isn't Chancellor Nick great? He left his mark on all of us. We were lucky to be a part of Martin and the UTM campus family. I am so very proud of you!! Can't wait for the next chapter...Mrs. B

Rebecca said...


When I read this, I thought of you. A job at Google perhaps (NBD)? http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/13/girl-power-wins-at-googles-first-science-fair/?partner=rss&emc=rss.


Heather D. said...

I have to admit that I got on your blog today looking for ideas for our house (we close next Wednesday!!!), but I was delighted to read this post. I also remember getting personal notes from the Chancellor, and I'm impressed to see that you kept yours! What good memories! I'm glad that your blog lets me keep up with your life and goals so that the next time I see you (Christmas, right?), I don't have to ask what you've been up to the past year. We can just keep the conversation going in person! ;)

Nick Dunagan said...

Someone shared your post with Cathy and she shared it with me. We have this thing at our house that you are either filling up someone's bucket or emptying it. Cathy asked me if I wanted my bucket filled. She then shared your blog. I am both honored and very proud of you. You are going to be so successful in your "day job". The best part of UT Martin was the opportunity to see students like you evolve into wonderful adults and contributors in their respective fields. Sarah, you are all of this plus a good Baker Road alum. I did write other people notes, but you were the only "Redheaded Stepchild" that I wrote to. Good luck and thanks for your kind words.