Why I’m Hopeful

Today, it is easy to be discouraged about the state of the world. On NPR today, I heard about the hunger crisis. Yesterday, I talked to a P.I. at a large research institution in despair about the proposed budget and its impact on research. My students come to school on a regular basis in near tears about the state of immigration, health care or the most recent crisis of the day. I have been guilty of burying my head to some degree, for my mental health. But recently, I had the privilege of taking part in a panel regarding the role of STEM education on girls.

I was invited to participate in the panel because I coach a science extracurricular activity at an all-female school. I had few of my students participating, and other faculty and high school girls were invited to be on the panel. When the day rolled around, I was grumpy about having agreed to participate. My children were both sick, I had family in town and it was rush hour when I had to drive across town. Adding insult to injury, the audience was composed of a measly smattering of elderly people; I’m not sure what I’d expected, but I’d hoped for a least a few more people.

The point of the event was to showcase efforts being put into encouraging young women to go into science and technology. The responses of the teenagers astounded me. The totally understood the perceived and stereotyped behaviors of women in STEM in a way I never did as an adolescent. They demonstrated a value for their own collaborative skills. And they left me feeling hopeful about future of women in science and tech.

When the moderator started asking us me questions, I realized how odd it was for me to be on this panel. I was sitting there giving “advice”, as a young person who had recently left science. Inevitably, as I introduced myself and my history, the moderator asked me the question: “so why did you leave research?”. Sure, I’d been asked that question before, but I’d never had to answer it publically or succinctly. And without realizing it, I had a great answer: I love science. After grad school, I was no longer interested in doing research. I was (and remain) interested in talking about science and I find it fulfilling and challenging. So girls, you should do what you love—I am. Sure, there were lifestyle reasons, but it ultimately came down to my personal interests.

Interestingly, I recently got an invitation to complete a survey about myIDP. It forced me to log in and revisit the assessment I’d done during graduate school. I completed it long before I transitioned to teaching and sort of wrote it off. In retrospect, they had me pegged before I was ready to admit it. So I guess my other advice would be to be open to suggestion—perhaps I’d have discovered teaching sooner if I had been more willing to do so. I’m hopeful that the next generation will be able to value and identify their own skills in STEM much more quickly than I have.


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