Tuesday, December 08, 2009


One of the things we are encouraged to do at the lab where I work is volunteer. There are several local community programs which have been approved for employee participation. While we of course do not need approval to volunteer our time, these specific programs allow for up to 2 hours a week paid leave for employees wishing to participate and I have been told that public outreach is highly regarded by management when it comes time to decide which postdocs get to stay for good.

I have enjoyed volunteering in the past, but needless to say, there really aren’t any approved opportunities for federally employed scientists to sterilize feral cats. The next best thing is working with kids. There is a program that my group leader heads which hosts scientific workshops for elementary kids once a week. The scientists involved take turns lecturing, demonstrating and then guiding students through that week’s science experiments. To be quite honest, this didn’t appeal to me at all. While I like kids, I am still a physicist and my ability to connect with audiences is lacking. I have never liked doing demos and if I liked lecturing I would have stayed on the academic path. And while I’m being brutally honest, the fact that these workshops take place early on Saturday mornings was less than appealing.

I felt bad turning down the woman who approached me to join this program and I’m thankful it was her and not my boss, who is careful not to pressure me into anything. I will gladly work 12 hour days in the name of research, but my Saturday mornings are for stumbling out of bed just as Deano returns from the bakery with bagels, coffee, and the paper, thank you. I told the woman to please keep me in mind for other opportunities, and I meant it. So I was very happy when several weeks ago this same woman put me in touch with the local branch leader
of the American Association of University Women. The Gaithersburg AAUW runs a program that pairs local career-oriented women with eighth grade girls from a local middle school. The program’s main objective is to provide mentoring to girls with academic potential who are perhaps lacking in one or more of the tools necessary to succeed in high school, college, and beyond. Furthermore, studies show that girls growing up in homes where neither parent went to college are at a disadvantage for attending college themselves. By introducing these girls to college graduates, their chances for success immediately improve. Since this is a one-on-one atmosphere, I felt more confident in my ability to connect and provide meaningful insight to a young girl who is looking for a role model. So I joined, and I am happy I did.

Our first session was just for mentors and it was a presentation by the AAUW branch leader explaining what a mentor is and what we can do for the lives of young women who are reaching adolescence in an age unlike any other, where college educations are absolutely critical and careers must be chosen with care. Our second session was Parent’s Night in which the mentors got to meet the girls they were paired with as well as the girl’s parents. I really hit it off with the girl I was assigned to. I know that the woman running the program asks the girls about what they want to do when they grow up and tries to pair them with mentors of similar careers. My girl doesn’t want to be a scientist per se (she wants to be a doctor), but she likes science and most importantly, I see a lot of myself in her which gives me a strong desire to reach out and help her get through this confusing time.

That isn’t to say the program is perfect. We spend two weeks exploring career options, several weeks talking about what to expect in high school, what to expect in college as well as discussions on peer pressure, bullying and substance abuse. I think this is great, but I really think there is too much emphasis placed on careers. If I could tell 13-year old me that I was going to be a physicist I would have never believed it. My career path was highly circuitous. In high school I was clueless and in college I tried a number of classes and majors. It took me an extra year to graduate, but I can guarantee I am happier than many of my classmates who knew what they wanted and pursued it essentially wearing blinders. I have not wanted to scare my mentee, but I have been trying to convey to her that many people don’t end up doing what they thought they wanted, not because they couldn’t achieve their goals, but because along the way they found something they liked better, maybe something they didn’t even know existed. The career quizzes seem to cover a lot of ground, suggesting some pretty unusual careers (adventure therapist? snowboard designer? tattoo artist?), but still I would stress that these girls are not yet completely who they are going to be. I am relieved that as of now she has chosen a career that will always be in demand and seems to have interests that would lead her towards a recession-proof profession. But most of all I am excited for what is to come and hope I can help this girl find her way.