In attempting to re-engage my academic brain stem, I’ve been doing a little continuing education the last couple of weeks at various forums hosted by the University-That-Tobacco-Built. Last week I had the pleasure of attending a forum of the Duke student organization, Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), that featured four academic leaders (who were women) and Bora Zivkovic discussing non-bench science careers.
One of the panelists was an old colleague, Dr Rochelle (Shelly) Schwartz-Bloom, an award-winning neuropharmacologist and educator in the Duke Department of Pharmacology & Cancer Biology (nice YouTube interview here).
With a successful basic neuroscience program and track record, Shelly has devoted the last eight years or so of making science education her primary research activity, an effort recognized nationally in 2004 by the Society for Neuroscience with their Science Education Award for her “outstanding contribution to providing neuroscience literacy to the K-12 population” (her award narrative is here in J Neurosci.). Shelly’s success has pulled science educators out of the woodwork all around the Duke campus and she was recently charged with the leadership of the Duke Center for Science Education.
Shelly began her science education initiative with an effort called RISE, or Research in Science Education, whose programs have now been funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). With the recognition that drug abuse education needs to start early in childhood education, RISE offers K-12 educators the resources to bring age-appropriate information to students on alcohol and issues in biology and chemistry that form the basis of pharmacology.
Under the masthead of RISE, Shelly secured support from the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund to establish LEAP, Launch into Education About Pharmacology, for 10th and 11th grade students to come to the Duke campus for a three-week summer program and Saturdays during the school year to learn about the scientific method and develop projects that will ultimately be entered in state and regional science competitions. This recent radio story (mp3 file) by Rose Hoban at our NPR affiliate, WUNC-FM, documents this year’s outcomes. (For the record, I want to be a combination of Shelly Schwartz-Bloom and Rose Hoban when I grow up.).
There are other related educational programs at RISE that Shelly has developed with her colleagues. Of greatest interest to me is that she has postdocs, grad students, and senior undergraduate students serving as mentors in the various segments of these programs. These educational programs illustrate that bench scientists can develop research areas that can compete for national funding and that science education can be a legitimate, and rewarding, career track for PhDs in the biomedical sciences.
I’m also encouraged by Duke’s establishment of the institution-wide Duke Center for Science Education out of its Office of the Provost. Shelly’s proposal, written with Harris Cooper from Duke’s Program in Education, Psychology & Neuroscience, is in the public domain (PDF here) in case other educators might be interested.
Listening to Shelly talk at the WiSE forum, I wondered how successful her career track would be for freshly-minted PhDs who might wish to follow immediately into a science education career at what the Carnegie Foundation classified almost 15 yrs ago as a Research-I University. After all, Dr Schwartz-Bloom earned tenure and had a 18-year career in neuroscience research before embarking on the science education as a scholarly effort. In her comments, she noted that once she stepped out, her colleagues entrenched in the NIH basic science game envied her for taking this step because so many wished they could’ve done it themselves. But that point made me wonder: what barriers keep tenure-track scientists from deciding mid-career to change their areas of emphasis? Many don’t give a thought to moving across disciplines, albeit cautiously and while keeping a core expertise area alive. But why is there disbelief or envy for going from bench neuroscience to science education and outreach?
In fact, this very point was punctuated by the title of the forum in which Shelly, Bora, and others participated: “Shaping the world, one job at a time: An altruistic/alternative career panel.” These career paths should not be defined as alternative; I can’t find the source now but I recall The Scientist having an article last year stating that more than 50% of biomedical PhD graduates are not in tenure-track academic faculty positions. Hence, being just like your PhD mentor is the alternative, not the “normal” route.
All I can say is that I hold Shelly in my highest regard and have the utmost respect for what she has done and will continue to do in the science community. I only hope that her example provides career options, for both women and men, that encourage the respectable exercise of one’s PhD training in a realm that extends beyond the borders of our academic research campuses.