Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Adopt a Scientist

The American Physical Society started a program that puts high school science students in email contact with practicing scientists. It's called 'Adopt a Scientist'. Although I'm not really sure how I've been adopted other than getting an email each from two students, but maybe in the future it will evolve into something else. It's a good program that I think should be greatly encouraged. Basically, it's the least that a scientist can do.

Anyway, here's my responses to the first set of questions (I did edit out a bit about my work):

1. How would you describe your job? What do you do in a typical day?

I work for a small engineering firm. My job title is “Research Analyst”, but I really do a number of different things. I do a fair amount of computer programming (in Fortran, Matlab, and C++). I do data analysis for some of the experiments that my company is working on, so I make a lot of graphs and charts. And also, I do some financial work, in that I project how much money we will spend on our different contracts, and help other people make decisions on what to buy based on how much we have left.

My typical day is spent pretty much in front of a computer. Our office is small and quiet. Probably once or twice a week, we have tele-conferences with colleagues at other companies and government offices, but otherwise, I work pretty much on my own. I did, however, get to go to Hawaii for an experiment last month.

2. Do you think that your educational background prepared you for your current occupation? What would you change?

Yes. Just to let you know, my degree is in astronomy, so it is a bit unusual for an astronomer to be working as an engineer on boats. So I have had to learn a lot on the job, simply because engineers communicate their physics knowledge a bit differently from astronomers. But, in terms of the “nuts and bolts” of physics, I learned everything I needed to in school.

Now, even though I feel like I learned what I needed to, there is certainly a lot I’d change about the way in which physics is taught to students, but that would take up a pretty long email.

3. What is the most interesting or unusual project you’ve worked on?

That’s a tough call, because I’ve actually been lucky to enjoy pretty much everything I’ve worked on so far, so I’ll just tell you what I’ve been doing lately.

I’m working on two projects. One is trying to make ships go faster by reducing their friction. The other project I work on involves the way that light reflects off of objects.

I’ll also tell you that some of the research that I enjoy the most involves learning about how students learn physics in class. I teach a lot, so I think it’s important to understand if what you’re trying to teach actually gets through to your students. Also, you want to know if the way you’re teaching is the most effective, compared to other ways of teaching you might try. So I have a few projects going on right now where we’re changing the way students do homework and tests to see if they actually learn more. I find these projects most rewarding, because I think they actually help people in a more direct way than some of the more “hard-science” based projects.

4. What advice do you have for current high school students interested in science? What advice would you give to someone looking to enter your field?

This is another tough one, because there is so much advice I’d like to give, but you’re only going to spend so long reading this email. There’s the obvious stuff, like learning a lot of math, and studying hard, and blah blah blah, but I think there are some more subtle points as well.

Try to participate in some real research as early as possible. It will give you a sense of what the life of a scientist is really like. There are many students who work really hard in school to be scientists, but then end up not liking science when they actually get to the research part of it. Daily life for a scientist is very different from science class, and it’s good to figure out if you like that or not early on.

The best physicists are not necessarily the people who do best on typical physics tests or other tests like the SAT (not that you shouldn’t try to do well on those things). Physics (and science in general) are creative processes. Being curious and persistent are qualities that really make a good scientist.

Along with that, remember that you don’t have to re-invent physics every time you do a problem or project. Learning to rely on what’s already been learned before and focusing on the smaller problem in front of you, is probably one of the most important skills that I’ve learned (and am still learning).

Even if you want to be a scientist, take lots of classes in college that have nothing to do with science. I was a history minor in college, and the perspective that those classes have given me as a scientist is invaluable. In my book, a scientist isn’t just someone who creates knowledge, they also help the world understand that knowledge. Also, it’s good to have some other skills/knowledge just incase you decide not to be a scientist.

Finally, science is a human process done by other human beings. Learning to understand and better interact with other people is often just as important as learning science knowledge itself. Think about your lab groups at school. Most of the time, probably, your group isn’t only focused on the science that it’s supposed to be learning. It’s no different in the real world. Finding people you want to work with and for, is very, very important.

5. What are the logistics of your work? (pay, hours, vacation time, collaboration with other scientists and non-scientists, balancing work and family, time spent gathering or analyzing data…)

I work between 40-50 hours per week, but sometimes it can be a bit more. I get 20 days off per year. Even though my office is small, we all work together pretty well. I’m just married, so I’m still learning to balance the family and work time, but I’m pretty happy so far. (Of course, I’d always like more time away from work.) And most of my time is spent analyzing data as opposed to collecting it.

Waddaya think?


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