“Have you ever seen a baby oyster?”
I repeated that question twice-a-dozen times on Saturday afternoon, and asked at least as many children under the age of ten if they had looked through a microscope before. After teaching two, seven-year-old girls how to adjust the eyepiece and turn the focus knob, I was feeling more rewarded by my profession than I have in years.
Science engagement has _________ me. I could fill in several verbs here. The first that comes to mind is renewed. I have been a practitioner of science for the last 15 years. By “practitioner” I mean that I have been in the business of science-ing: planning experiments to answer questions, or at least get us closer to understanding some unknown; collecting data, which often included building something with which I would use to collect said data; analyzing data and creating graphs, tables, and charts to visualize what I discovered; and writing manuscripts describing what I found and putting those findings into a “what we already know or thought we knew” framework. Most of those 15 years I felt fulfilled to work at this business, believing that in the pushing past of our edge of knowledge I was improving the world in some way. But at the completion of my Ph.D., after I felt the freedom of being done with my official schooling — 13.25 years + three degrees later — that fulfilled feeling waned slowly during two postdoctoral research positions until what remains is but a wisp of pleasure.
While my love of the actual doing of science has faded, my desire to inspire in others a passion for science and an interest in the process of discovery-making has grown. At first I stepped into the waters of science engagement with trepidation. I agreed to give a public lecture here and lead a tour there. Yet, I felt an ever-increasing desire to engage broadly, to spend less time in the lab and more time in museums, in classrooms, and behind my computer screen writing about science. I stopped myself from jumping in fully for years, although this was what I wanted to do more than anything else. I told myself a story that if I engaged in the way I wanted, I would have less time to do the actual science-ing. The data collection, proposal writing, and scientific paper-reading. Even still, I took a science writing workshop and thought about popular science writing daily. I visualized myself working in a museum or running a citizen-science program. I imagined myself working at a community college, helping to make an education in science more accessible to non-traditional students and groups typically underrepresented in STEM fields. These thoughts always left my heart pounding with excitement and my mind buzzing with all the ways I could live my love of science without continuing in my craft as a scientist. Yet immense self-doubt always followed my daydreams. If I leave my research world, won’t it mean that I am not good enough? Not smart enough? Not hard working enough to make it in the world of scientific research? Perhaps even not dedicated enough to saving the world, because after all, wasn’t that the whole reason I signed up for this job 15 years ago? To improve our [scientific] understanding of the consequences of global change for our world’s natural ecosystems? I felt so far from that goal.
I was also scared that if I did not do research it meant that I was not a scientist, and if I was not a scientist, then I could not engage. I felt stuck. I felt like I was moving backwards, away from who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.
In the fall of last year I received an email sent to my previous labgroup’s listserve from a woman that has done more in the last eight years to preserve and protect the world’s oceans than most anyone could do in a lifetime, Jane Lubchenco. The email sent was an announcement for a science communication fellowship through a partnership between the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and Oregon State University. The application was due in less than 24 hours. I filled it out as quickly as I could and hit send.
Everything in my professional life has changed since that moment. I completed the fellowship program, took leave from my postdoctoral research position, and worked at my first museum event. And I am writing about science for audiences outside of academia. Daily. My audience is but from my own imaginings at this point, but I am writing still.
I am unsure where my new path will lead, and the route is far from linear, but perhaps in the challenge of simply moving forward I will gain skills and find my way. I have much to learn about the mechanics and business of writing, but I am energized each time I sit in front of my computer to create lines of words.
And when I ask for the 25th time, “Have you ever seen a baby oyster?” I feel fulfilled.