nprgirl.jpgI promised a post on my oddball career path, because many people find it interesting. It’s certainly been a bit of a random walk and I’m thrilled to find myself here! Here is an interview with me about my career through the American Physical Society.

I’ve often likened myself to a bacteria. Bacteria tend to be named for what they like — heat-loving bacteria are “thermophilic”, or acid-loving bacteria are “acidophilic.” But a thermophilic bacteria on one end of the petri dish doesn’t have a satellite map of the whole petri dish so that it can make a beeline for where it’s hottest. Instead, it senses the local changes in heat, and just heads in the direction where it senses it’s a little warmer. Then it senses which direction to go from there. In math terms, it’s following a “gradient.” So it doesn’t go from point A to point B directly, but gets there by wandering around, “sniffing out” the directions that get it closer to what it wants.

I certainly haven’t gone from point A to point B. I don’t think there is a point B, point B keeps changing. I just kind of sniff around and go in the direction that feels good. That’s how I got here. Sometimes I worry that I should try to do things that “build a career.” But life’s too short to do things just because you have to. I’ve gotten along very well by doing things that I enjoy, and because I enjoy them, I end up being valuable.

So, my undergraduate degree is in social psychology — I studied women in the workplace, but my true love was understanding how people interact in groups and just trying to get some insight into the mystery of how people work. I took a lot of physics and math while I was in college, though, and was taking 2 physics courses my senior year while completing my senior project. I got tired of the imprecision of psychology, though it was clearly applicable to everyday life, and thought perhaps I’d like to go to graduate school in physics. Physics made me feel good.

But I took a bunch of time off (5 years) and worked in San Francisco, and then went to Peace Corps in Guinea, West Africa. In Guinea I taught science for the first time, explaining the existence of invisible things like germs and HIV to villagers. That was where I understood that many people have alternative explanations for why things happen — explanations that don’t rely on science. That was also where I met my first science writer — a woman visiting a Peace Corps volunteer who was also a writer for Science magazine. I thought, wow, there’s a great career — I love writing, love learning science, it’s perfect. So, I kept that in my back pocket.

When I came back, I entered graduate school in physics at UC Santa Cruz. It had been 5 years since I’d been in school and 7 years since my last calculus class. It was very, very hard. But I did it, and 5 years later had a degree in physics. I somewhat regret sticking it out to the PhD, because it was not an enjoyable experience for me. I could have gotten the expertise and fun that I wanted with an MS. On the other hand, the doctoral degree opens a lot of doors for me.

While I was in graduate school I began freelance science writing and (through a lot of hard work) got several dozen publications in newspapers, magazines, press releases, and the web. That culminated in me getting the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at National Public Radio’s Science Desk in DC. What a great job! I fell in love with radio (which I really hadn’t listened to that much before).

After my dissertation, I found the postdoctoral fellowship at the Exploratorium and that was the best thing that ever happened to me. The Exploratorium has been a creative hotbed, full of great people and great ideas and I’ve learned a lot from my mentor, Dr. Paul Doherty as well as the other amazing people in the Teacher Institute where I work. This job has made my career, and everywhere I look now, people are interested in hiring me.

So that’s me, from psychology to physics to writing to the Exploratorium, and now on to education research in Boulder.