A long and winding road

by Stephanie Philipp, Miami University, Oxford, OH

A common thread I have seen in recent blog posts is that career trajectories are as varied as the people who live them and mine is no exception.  My story is a bit different from others that have been shared, in that my journey from chemistry major to chemistry education researcher has taken more time with quite a few stops along the way.  If you are just starting a career, know that it is entirely possible that what you envision for your vocation may be far different from what you eventually choose or feel called to do, and that a career is not like a projectile moving in a smooth parabolic path, but maybe more like a naturally winding stream!

Being a chemist
After earning a B.S. in chemistry at the University of Florida and an M.S. in analytical chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was ready to start a career as an analytical chemist in the environmental science and engineering field.  I had no trouble landing interesting, well-paying jobs with small businesses focused on helping their clients (like the EPA) develop effective analytical methods or maintain compliance with environmental laws.  This was fortunate because we moved four times during the 13 years that my chemist husband worked his way up the corporate ladder in product development for consumer product and food companies. My philosophy during those years was to “bloom where I was planted” as I balanced a career with the busy life of a young family.  Many of the skills that were valued in my jobs as a laboratory scientist and methods development project manager are common to every job in every field I have worked: chemistry content knowledge, communication skills (listening, speaking and writing), resourcefulness, and an ability to collaborate with, and learn from, others.

Being a science teacher
After eight years, I needed a break from the heavy travel schedule and long hours of a project manager while trying to raise two small children.  Because much of my identity is tied to being a scientist and I wanted to remain active in the field, I took an opportunity to teach a class on physical science to non-science majors at a nearby liberal arts college. That’s when my career trajectory shifted the first time.  Some of the skills I needed in order to teach college students were similar to the skills I had needed to successfully educate my former clients about what they needed to do to stay in compliance with the law or how I could use analytical chemistry principles to help meet their needs for effective measurement methods for air pollutants.  However, in all my education, I had never been taught how people learn.  This did not seem to bother the college at which I taught, but even though I had the best intentions and used my intuition about how I had learned scientific concepts, I am sure some of my students were a bit frustrated with my clumsy pedagogy.  I felt very strongly about wanting to share my enthusiasm and knowledge of science, especially chemistry, with others, but I wanted to do it effectively, so I enrolled in a teacher licensure program and embarked upon a career very different from scientific consulting.

Since becoming a licensed K-12 teacher, I have realized that teaching can be some of the most important work that I could do.  I often told my first students, 6th graders at the same Florida middle school I had attended as a child, that all of the work I had done as a chemist would soon be obsolete—newer, more effective methods and instrumentation would be developed, laws would change, reports would be discarded, and new ones written.  However, the work we did together in the classroom, struggling to explain how the world works and how we could develop our minds, would never be obsolete, but would be a way to take us to new places and opportunities.  They were impressed that I would give up being a scientist (a glamorous job according to their thinking) to spend my days with them.  What they didn’t realize was that I was still a scientist, only instead of studying the decomposition of industrial waste, I was studying how their minds learned the concepts I was trying to teach.  I taught middle school and high school (AP Physics and general chemistry and even freshman biology) for 5 years, during which I became increasingly curious about how science could be taught more effectively.  Why did everyone say “science is hard” or “I hated chemistry class”?  I have always thought learning about anything (deep conceptual learning) was hard work, but exhilarating nonetheless.  What were we doing as educators that continued to perpetuate this myth that learning about science is not satisfying?

Being a scholar
I continued that line of questioning when I chose to go back to school for a doctorate in science education (curriculum and instruction) at the University of Louisville.  In that program, I was happily able to combine parts of my two previous lives—the questions I had raised as a teacher and the research skills I had developed as a chemist.  Rigorous research questions in science education are not always content-specific, but are almost always grounded in theories from learning sciences or developmental psychology.  I feel very strongly, as do many other science educators, that content specificity has a welcome and essential place in research on education, and that any artificial barriers between science education research and discipline-based educational research (like CER) should not be supported.  It’s all a matter of focus and the grain-size of your investigation.  As a scholar who has experienced being a chemist, a teacher, a science education researcher, and now a chemistry education researcher in Ellen Yezierski’s group, I feel very comfortable with a having a foot in both science education and chemistry education research.  The emphasis for all researchers, in education or otherwise, should be in doing and disseminating good work: creating a solid foundation from research that has been previously done, generating important and investigate-able research questions, creating research design that is suitable for answering the questions, using instruments and data analysis techniques appropriately, and carefully drawing thoughtful conclusions that can move our knowledge base forward.

I did not foresee, as a newly minted chemist out of grad school, that I would find teaching and learning to be an enjoyable and rewarding career.  I have needed many of the skills I developed as a chemist to pursue a career as an education researcher and teacher, so the transitions were not difficult for me.  It has also helped that I love working with people!  The most helpful resources I have found are others who have shared their love of learning with me, undergraduate advisor Sam Colgate, doctoral advisor Tom Tretter, my current mentors Ellen Yezierski and Stacey Lowery Bretz, and especially the students and teachers with whom I have had the honor to share time in the classroom.  The path has been winding, but the views along the way have been inspiring!  

Stephanie Philipp HeadshotStephanie Philipp is a Post-Doctoral Chemical Education Research Associate for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Miami University