Me. Roche. Period.
That was my world and those were the lofty expectations when I left the little Polish town of Wallington to go off to college.
Little did I know that an education course through Philadelphia, north Florida, and Denver would make an academic out of me. And even less had I anticipated falling in love with a brilliant physician-scientist and leaving my tenured position at Colorado to move blindly to the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. I wiggled my way into a wonderful position with the co-discoverers of taxol and camptothecin, Drs. Monroe Wall and Mansukh Wani, and then moved across town to North Carolina Central University. In each position, I picked up new skills – teaching, public outreach, natural products chemistry, scientific writing – that when combined have led my career GPS to recalculate my route.
Well, today marks the formal announcement of another step in my unforeseen path.
Led by renowned biologist and treetop ecologist, “Canopy Meg” Lowman, the NRC will build on the treasure that is the state museum in the capital city of Raleigh to be a showcase for how science is actually done – the tagline is, “How Do We Know?”
The NRC will add to the Museum a series of visible, working laboratories from microbiology and genomics to astronomy and paleontology that will directly involve the public and citizen science projects. The centerpiece of the soon-to-be completed 80,000-square foot building is a 42-foot-high spherical theatre called The Daily Planet. While I don’t know if I’ll be expected to dress up as Clark Kent, I do know that The Daily Planet will be an immersive multimedia space with visual links to field sites around the world and allow Q&A sessions between the public and the scientists. It’ll be a mash-up between a planetarium and TED talks with a focus on increasing science literacy.
Beyond Canopy Meg, I’ll have the chance to work with – and sing the praises of – several newly-recruited lab directors: Julie Horvath-Roth (Microbiology & Genomics), Roland Kays (Mammals & Biodiversity), Rachel L. Smith (Astronomy), and Lindsay Zanno (Paleontology & Geology). These folks add to an already outstanding group of scientists in the Research & Collections division of the Museum, several of which are featured in the first NRC newsletter (PDF here). Having the opportunity to engage these scientists and others with public audiences in our state capital is a truly remarkable opportunity. And museum programming will be available around the world.
It just changes – that’s all
Back in February, I wrote what turned out to be a rather prescient blogpost about how one’s career goals change – and that’s okay. I was inspired by a Science Careers piece by Kathy Weston, a former University of London researcher who closed her lab in 2009 to become a science writer. In “Falling Off the Ladder: How Not to Succeed in Academia,” Weston lamented that she never became the huge researcher she intended (she did her postdoc with Nobel laureate, J. Michael Bishop).
But what I and some of my colleagues found in Kathy’s piece was not that she had failed herself. Rather, she found other things that excited her more about life and science.
I opened the post with:
My friends: changing your career path is okay. It really is. What you wanted at 21 may no longer serve you at 41. It’s okay.
Some people always know exactly what they want. Most people don’t. It just changes – that’s all.
I’ve pretty much followed the tenure-track academic career path since becoming an assistant professor in 1992 in at the University of Colorado School of Pharmacy. I’ve been modestly successful in getting NIH grants, training students, and maintaining a reasonable publication record. But teaching and public outreach has always been my primary passion. Although much lip service is given to the latter efforts, the truth is that they are not as highly valued as grant dollars, even at teaching-intensive universities.
When I started this blog six years ago this week, my eyes were opened to the potent, worldwide reach that science writing can have via a medium that anyone with an internet connection can use. No longer was I restricted to talking to 25-150 students at a time or, at best, a public audience of 400 or so. Your readership, comments, encouragement, and constructive criticism led me to broaden my view as a teacher, work harder on my writing, and wish more strongly that science communication would become a more substantive part of my career path.
Being at this C&EN blog network gave me a firsthand, behind-the-scenes eye at how a science weekly is put together and how solid PhD scientists can apply their background to making complex science easier for technical audiences to understand. Being tutored by writers this summer from Wired magazine, The New York Times, and the Boston Globe, made me realize that perhaps my strengths may not lie in the laboratory.
But breaking into science writing these days is no easy feat. Getting a NIH grant has better odds.
Opportunity knocks – to do more
The timing and description of the NRC science communications director position couldn’t have been better. Instead of looking for a typical public information officer – the Museum already has a tremendous one in Jonathan Pishney – Meg and Museum Director Betsy Bennett wanted a PhD-level scientist with a record of broad public engagement and new media savvy. I’m totally stoked to join the outstanding External Affairs group of the Museum – they’re a remarkable team of writers, TV folks, designers, and development pros.
The beauty of the position is that I’ll still be encouraged to keep my personal online presence here at CENtral Science and elsewhere in the blogosphere. In this new position, I’m hoping to promote the often underappreciated role of chemistry in the natural sciences and expand public understanding of nature as a source of therapeutic biomolecules.
Moreover, I’m going to have an even greater impact in pushing my career-long goals of increasing the number of folks from underrepresented groups who, if they don’t pursue careers in the sciences, will at least understand that being a scientist is accessible to all. I’ll specifically continue my relationship with my current university, one of five historically-black colleges/universities (HBCUs) in the University of North Carolina system.
In addition, there are two additional private HBCUs within a mile of so of the Museum: St. Augustine’s College and Shaw University, the first university for African-American students in the American South and the alma mater of my current university’s founder, Dr. James E. Shepard. And Raleigh is even closer to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, an institution originally established to educate Native Americans of the Lumbee tribe.
And, yes, yes – there will still be room for gangly Polish kids from New Jersey. And for visiting scientists, even some graying, bespectacled, goateed white dudes.
Follow your heart – and the skills you’ve acquired down the road
Yes, I am probably ending my career as a laboratory principal investigator. I’ll still have a presence in the Microbiology & Genomics Laboratory and bring along my microscopes and thermocyclers I’ve accumulated over the years. But I have made the commitment to no longer run a lab of my own. However, I’ll still be a university professor: my position is funded in part by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at North Carolina State University. I’ll be teaching in their MS program in Technical Communication and hosting interns and grad students at the museum for their own projects.
Accepting this position marks the second time I have relinquished a tenured faculty position at a state university. But the issue is not so much that I have lost enthusiasm for my own investigator-initiated research. Instead, I have found an opportunity that gets me even more excited about science and the potential to reach young people and the public.
For those of you attending the ScienceOnline2012 conference next month, the Thursday night reception will be held at the Museum of Natural Sciences. So I look forward to showing you around (even though the NRC won’t yet be completed).
But for readers who might find themselves in Raleigh after the 20 April 2012 opening of the NRC, drop me a line. We’ll be happy to host you and your families.
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