As a graduate student, I worked really hard to do the things that graduate students are supposed to do. I went to the seminars. I read the journal club papers. I did well in my classes. And I will admit that I was often pretty jealous of other people who weren’t so regimented about those things, but who seemed to be having greater success and frankly more fun. Classmates who are barely passing classes, but have great results in their first seminar, colleagues who get invited to give talks because they met the organizer at the coffee bar instead of going to the keynote, or even coworkers who didn’t seem too frazzled to keep their experiments straight. I didn’t really know what to make of this at the time, but I slowly realized that if I didn’t do all of the things grad students are supposed to do, I wouldn’t get kicked out of grad school. I would still probably get my PhD someday, and I might feel more successful while doing it.
In my 3rd year of graduate school, I got smitten with the idea of running a bioethics seminar for undergraduates. I had a vision of it as a chance for students to practice articulating themselves on important issues like season flu vaccinations, animals in research and personalized medicine. With an advanced pool of undergrads, we could directly address the science in each issue, so it would be a balanced elective for bio majors. My advisor agreed to let me chase this wild idea, and I talked the faculty into letting me offer this course in bioethics.
Now might be a good time to say that I had no previous training in bioethics. While we worked across the street from one of the best philosophy departments in the country, and arguably the world (including very strong ethics and philosophy of science programs), no one ever suggested this might be better for someone else to teach. In fact, I very quickly became the departmental “bioethics person.” I don’t mean that I was chasing down my colleagues to provide moral guidance, but when questions about research conduct or science in the news were up for discussion, I was always getting pulled in to the discussion. This meant I got to talk and think about these issues even more, which meant they seemed more likely to come up when I was around.
In the context of ethics, this felt weird. I know I was no expert, and these are seriously tricky issues to deal with. But that’s when I finally started to figure it out: if you want to be an expert in something, start doing more of it. And tell people about it too. Talking about an interest is the easiest way to demonstrate a passion for it. And while this doesn’t sound like a story about work life balance, I felt much happier, and was more successful, in my research when I felt justified to spend some of my energy on this parallel effort.
After I defended, I spent some very formative time volunteering with the Carnegie Science Center of Pittsburgh. Writing, defending and wrapping up had left me feeling pretty burned out on science, but it doesn’t take many hours launching rockets with four year olds to get your enthusiasm back. In fact, I realized I really love informal education: it’s fun and there is a growing body of research that indicates it can be valuable for student’s academic and career success. But, I really needed a job, and there isn’t an obvious pipeline for scientists to enter as museum staff. So I accepted my current job as a curriculum writer, and I tell people about my interest in informal learning.
One of the people I mentioned this interest to was the co-founder of Seattle’s new DIYBio lab HiveBio (hivebio.org). This lab space is meant to provide a lab for scientists of all levels to run experiments and learn new skills. And one of the ways they want to help people learn new skills is to run an educational program. Even though I have no experience in creating large, complex programs, organizing volunteers or managing the diverse needs of this ambitious program, I was asked to be the Executive Director of Education.
I’m over the moon about the opportunity: it’s a chance for me to build a program from the ground up and to support informal learning in my area of expertise. Someday, this might be the weird extra thing on my resume that gets me a job. Already, it’s given me a much better excuse to interact with real professionals who work in informal learning environments. And the best part is, even if it goes nowhere, if my career never returns to this path, I get to be involved in something I enjoy which is a huge opportunity all by itself.
Now, I love my real job. My coworkers are great, the work is challenging and formal education is still one of the key drivers of long term success for students. But one of the things that I love about my job is that I still have the time and energy at the end of the day to get involved in something like HiveBio. Taking on this role in informal education is probably not the fastest way to work up the rungs in publishing, or to deeply impress my manager with my commitment to career and technical education. That’s ok, that’s not why I’m doing it. I feel like I am focusing on my personal priorities, having more fun and it’s bringing me greater success.
Sandlin Seguin, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. She currently works as a curriculum writer, writing career education materials.