When I was younger, I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist. I loved to spend time exploring outdoors, watching the stars, reading, and even watching TV shows related to science. I went back and forth between being a veterinarian, a doctor, a forensic scientist, and wildlife biologist, but no matter what I wanted to do science was always the focus. I eventually ended up as a middle school science teacher, sharing my passion for asking questions about how the world works with the next generation. Even though I’m not quite where I ended up, I now realize that a career in science is as flexible as the field itself.
Follow your passion, but don’t ignore new ones.
I love medicine. As an EMT in college, I loved helping people and learning about treating various conditions. Then I was looking for an elective course to take that would help fulfill my biology degree. I discovered an animal research methods course that took its students outdoors to study and observe nature. I couldn’t believe that I could get course credit for doing something I loved anyway. I soon realized that I didn’t have to stop at just one class and changed my entire major to Wildlife & Fisheries Conservation. I had wanted to be a doctor for so long, but the moment the thought entered my mind that I could study animals I knew it was the right choice. Because of that decision I was fortunate enough to spend the next few years studying everything from coral reefs to sea otters to song birds to bottlenose dolphins all around the United States. Science is one word used to categorize millions of fields, so even if you can’t picture yourself in one area, there are so many more left for you to discover.
Get your hands dirty as soon as you can.
The best way to know if you like something is to do it. In high school, my teachers always encouraged me to participate in the science fair. It was my first experience with independent research. It showed me that not only did I enjoy science, but I could be good at it too. I learned how to speak publicly and work with others. It helped guide my choices as I applied to colleges and chose a major. I wouldn’t have known what to do if I hadn’t taken the extra time to figure out what I liked. Whether it’s a science fair or an engineering club or working as an assistant to a local veterinarian, find a way to get involved in what you are interested in to see if you actually like it. Take REAL science courses for science majors, not science electives offered for others to fill requirements (the pathetic presentation of science to non science majors is another issue in itself that is doing our students a huge injustice and is sure to impact our future as well due to common ignorance on scientific issues). Even if it turns out that you don’t like it as much as you thought you would, you’ll know to try something else. You don’t want to end up regretting not following your interests later on when you find yourself bored in a career you don’t care about.
Work your way up from the bottom.
During my freshman year of college, I took an unpaid position with a professor helping to raise baby birds for a study on song formation. I woke up at 4am to make it to the lab in time to feed, clean, and care for the birds every hour on the hour for their first few months of life. I trekked through swamps and got so many mosquito bites I thought I would get sick. A few months in, I was able to get some money for my work, More importantly, my professor and his team started to take me seriously. I went to meetings with graduate students to present and hear about their work. I attended paper discussions and learned advanced ways to analyze data. I met professors in different departments and heard about their research. I still spent a good amount of my time cleaning up bird poop, but it was more than worth it. The exposure I got was priceless and something I never would have had if I only just paid attention in class. I also realized how important the work of all people on a project is, even if they are just the cleaning crew. Science is a team sport, and if you want to be good at it, it’s best to play all the positions.
Science has many areas, and so do you.
If you had told me as a child that I would end up a middle school science teacher, I would have been very upset. I had no desire to teach and even less desire to spend more time in middle school. Now that I have been a teacher for a year I can’t picture myself doing anything else. I am still a scientist. I am studying how student learn and the factors that influence their success. I study how to get students curious and making them future scientists. My students will face such important challenges from disease research to food production to climate change – issues that affect EVERYONE, not just scientists. I need to prepare students for all areas of science, so I am more of a scientist now that ever before. I never would have thought that I would be here in this way, but I have always stayed flexible in my career choices to meet my needs and interests. It may not have been easy to switch around so much, but it was more than worth it. If you want to find your true self in science or any field, remember to follow your own interests. Science will always be a part of me even I decide to no longer teach.