Potassium’s search for what’s next

Potassium ponders her next career move while on a train in Germany

As many of you know, I received my PhD in Biochemistry last fall. Since then I have been continuing to work in my PhD laboratory getting a paper submitted and exploring my next step as a scientist. Now that I am not struggling to get my degree, I decided it was a great time to explore other areas I am interested in – science education and making science/education accessible to everyone. In no apparent order I have:

  • joined a committee (the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Race and Ethnicity) where I work to inform the Chancellor about what is happening on our campus with regards to race,
  • attended a science education class where I learned how to design science education curriculum using the principles of active learning and backwards design (such fancy words!),
  • taught high school students over the summer of 2015 and will be co-teaching a Science and Society class this semester,
  • co-founded a new seminar series at CU that brings diverse scholars to this campus so that we can expand our network of scholars as well as show that broader community of CU and Boulder that scientists (and professors in general) can be of any race, gender, etc.

As I got involved in all of these activities, I realized that I have a much stronger passion for all of these things compared to working on actual science at the bench. Yes there is a part of me who loves to sit in the dark and look at those pretty cellys on the microscope. And there is a part of me who loves to play with microscopes because they are soooooo cool (I also took a 2 week microscopy course in New York this year). But I really like people and helping to make a difference in people’s lives. I feel more and more that my future career may lie away from the bench and away from those cozy towers of academia.

So then what will I do with myself?

Thus began the epic year of existential crises. It’s still not over yet so if you get stressed out by unfinished stories, maybe skip the rest of this post and tune in next week instead! Basically, it’s been a bit frustrating for me to search for jobs because I’m worried that I’ve worked myself into the corner with this PhD thing. For me, there were two main reasons for getting a PhD:

  1. I wanted to learn how to think critically about a subject (any subject really) and to have the tools be able to answer any question/problem thrown at me. This is really the point of any PhD program. Granted, it would be easier for me to answer questions regarding stuff that I directly work on but really it applies to anything – getting a PhD means that you have solved a problem/answered a question that no one else has answered/solved ever in the history of the universe, which in theory should mean that you now have the tools to look up/learn new skills very quickly.
  2. I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself but I thought that getting a PhD would give me leverage that would allow me to waltz into a room somewhere and be like “Hello. I have a PhD. I know about this stuff and I am super creative! Give me a job!”

Now I worry that instead, my PhD says to everyone “Hello. I like labwork and scientists. I want more of that!” I can’t really find jobs that ask for people with PhDs and do not include benchwork, teaching, or working at a tech company either as a research scientist or technical/medical writer. Maybe I don’t know the right places to look? (Note: if you know of the correct search terms/websites/etc, please please please let me know). Maybe I need to solidify what I’d like to do? I am actually not sure because I don’t know what’s out there in terms of alternative careers!

Right now I have been looking into interesting fellowships and certificate programs. Today I am visiting UC Santa Cruz to look into their Science Communications program. I have also looked a little into some science policy fellowships in DC. All of these sound neat but I’m still not sure if they are right for me. More searching will commence for now!

Next week – more about science research opportunities for high school and college students!

Let’s talk about how to talk about science….

Soooooo I was getting ready to write a giant post that answered everyone’s questions about science when I realized how many of you responded by telling me that your eyes glaze over after 5 minutes of talking about science. Then I got worried – blogging is not so good for this type of conversation that I want us to have. It can very easily slip into me lecturing and you skimming because you feel like you are in over your head. I really want to be on the same page as you when I write these. I want you to know that you are talking to Potassium, the girl who likes sharks and whales and who likes taking pictures and being silly. Regardless of my role as the “scientist” in this conversation, I am still human, just like you (for an example – look how happy I am to see a fake dinosaur – below). So what do we do? How can we make this (awkward) medium work for us? Is there any way that I can write these posts in a way to make it more of a conversation? Let’s discuss!

Potassium with a new dino friend at the Dinosaurierpark in Münchehagen, Germany.

PS – Sorry for the super short super meta post about posting. I have been working super hard getting ready for the Thanksgiving break. Plus immediately after the break, my friend L and I are hosting a seminar speaker and we have been sending frantic e-mails out to everyone so that everything will be ready to go before everyone goes on break. Are you traveling for Thanksgiving? Cobalt’s and my families are coming to us! How exciting! :)

PPS – Let’s also set a schedule for these science posts. I want to post them regularly but I also want to make sure this blog is well rounded and I have room for photography and whatever other silly stuff I want to tell you about. What do you think is good for the science? Biweekly? Once a month?

I want to have a conversation with you about science

Don’t turn around to see who I am talking to because I am talking to you! Yes you!

The “lab coat” at the Children’s Museum in Denver may be too small for Potassium but she is still serious about talking to you!

It doesn’t matter to me how much science you know, if you won the science fair or if you hated science and avoided it like the plague. Mainly the point is that I want to have a conversation with you.

I was thinking about the way we discuss science with each other nowadays and I think one problem is that we are not opening ourselves up for a conversation. Everyone is guarded. Scientists are on edge because they are unsure that nonscientists will understand the complexities of scientific topics and why they are important. Nonscientists are on edge because they feel judged by the scientists, especially when scientists take to lecturing because it is probably how they learned science. I am pretty sure no one really likes lectures, especially outside of the scope of academia. I certainly don’t.

Potassium thinks she looks funny when she lectures high school students about laboratory techniques…

Strange things happen when we feel uncomfortable with each other. It’s really hard to communicate when we feel guarded and unsafe. I think one strategy that we (scientists, nonscientists, etc) use when talking to each other about science and popular scientific topics is asseveration (isn’t that a cool word?) – that is boldly stating “facts” such as “People who don’t understand science are not smart.” Or “Scientists are wasting all our money doing nothing for us.” The great thing about this strategy is that it feels like communication – you have told someone your opinion about a topic so yes! Check that off the list. The bad thing about this strategy is that it really gives the people you are talking to no way to respond unless they completely agree with you. Anyone who disagrees with you is completely caught off guard and has a huge energy barrier to figure out how to tell you they disagree. So… not so great for talking about science. Everyone leaves feeling frustrated.

So what do we do about this problem?

I think we need to have conversations about science. We need to start sitting down in coffee shops and bars and really getting to know each other. Conversations allow us to be curious about each other’s thoughts and beliefs as well as be authentic by sharing our own. In this way, we can have a dialog about scientific topics without insulting each other. Hopefully this method allows us to all come closer to an understanding of what science means and what is currently happening in the scientific world.

So let’s have a conversation! First, here’s me being curious:
What do you want to talk about? What scientific topics are you interested in/afraid of/curious about/etc? We can even talk about other topics such as science communication or what do scientists do?
Second, here’s me being authentic:
I am kind of scared about doing this series of posts. What if no one wants to talk to me about science? What if I can’t explain the main points of science to you? What if I just end up confusing us both? I am also kind of excited to see what we end up talking about!

Finally – I am talking on a panel about the difference between tolerance and acceptance on a college campus TOMORROW at CU’s UMC during the Diversity and Inclusion Summit. If you live in Boulder, you should stop by so we can talk about this topic some more! :D

Now it’s your turn!