Issues Magazine

Virtual Career Paths Make Science Real

By Will Rifkin and Phillipa Camilleri

The World-Wide Day in Science reveals hundreds of career pathways in science courtesy of student reporters.

A bit puzzled about career options? Someone like you found a satisfying job as a flow cytometrist, shining laser light through blood to examine its cells and chemicals. What 14-year-old would imagine that?

Guidance on careers in science can now rely on authentic accounts of the interests, disinterests, preferences, inspirations and curiosity of everyday professionals. This approach may be more effective than stories about a great scientist’s discovery, standardised tests of abilities or lists of salary levels. Career options in science can become more “real” when one learns about people in science who were “just like you” when they were younger.

That is the premise behind the World-Wide Day in Science (WWDS), a “virtual event” that occurs in mid-April each year. University students interview science-based professionals and formulate stories to contribute to an online career guide. These accounts, now numbering well over 1000, reveal a wide variety of interests and inspirations that have led to career paths involving science.

Profiles on the WWDS website (www.dayinscience.unsw.edu.au) illustrate that one does not need to love astronomy from the age of six to become an astronomer, although it doesn’t hurt. Some people end up in fields that they initially hated. Others were drawn by an inspiring role model, a relative who worked with impressive machinery or an attractive member of the opposite sex who was interested in science. Still others just pursued their curiosity, while many bounced from one area to another until something felt right.

Inspiration and Approach

WWDS is an international project that provides a continually evolving and growing career resource for students and teachers. It focuses on a target date in mid-April each year because at that time schools are in session in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Activities on that day that are undertaken by scientists and science-based professionals from across the world are documented on the WWDS website.

Now in its seventh year, WWDS features profiles of marine biologists, astronomers, speech therapists, school students and Nobel Prize winners. Participants have reported from every continent, including Antarctica.

With modest in-class training, WWDS student-reporters develop an eye for the sort of authentic story that would appeal to a high school audience. Questions that they ask in their interviews of professionals are likely to be relevant to the queries of the average high school student, such as: “Do you get to travel?”; “What are the best parts of your job?”; and, if they are forthright enough to ask, “How much do you get paid?”

The Day in Science was conceived at the University of New South Wales as a class project for second-year university science majors. The aim was to get these young scientists-in-training talking to professionals in the areas that the students were considering pursuing as a career. The student-reporters gained insight on career choices, and they got to share that insight with classmates (through peer reviewing of the stories they wrote).

More importantly, their website became a resource for high school students who were deciding what to study in years 11 and 12, and what university programs to consider. The UNSW students have created websites (www.adayinscience.net) and CDs that have been distributed to high school teachers and keen students.

The Day in Science approach was inspired by the coffee table books A Day in the Life of Africa and A Day in the Life of India, which were conceived by LIFE magazine photographer Rick Smolen. The books are photo essays on 24 hours in the lives of a range of inhabitants of each continent. Whereas those Day in the Life images were captured by professional photographers, the web has allowed our WWDS stories and images to be recorded by amateur “reporters” – university students, high school students and scientists themselves.

Challenges of Conveying Career Information

The roles of a microbiologist, astronomer, park ranger, nurse or any of the many new forms of science-based professional are dynamic. Their day-to-day activities – and the attractions of each job – can be difficult to discern. Views of parents and friends about what would make a “good” career path are often narrow and not particularly revealing. Plus, they can be plagued with stereotypes. How can students consider options that friends and parents have not heard of and might never have imagined?

Compounding this challenge, the roles of microbiologists, for example, also differ between individuals. One may work 9 to 5 in a laboratory, while another may travel frequently to collect samples. Furthermore, such practices will evolve over time. For instance, the role of a geneticist has changed rapidly over the past 20 years with the development of new DNA technologies.

Thus, career guidance requires current information to portray the emergence of new options with developments in science and technology. To be compelling, such a resource has to be authentic as well – something that captures the flavour of what professionals are doing today and how they found themselves doing it.

What Professionals Can Reveal

The WWDS project has grown, now harvesting 300–500 stories per year. This year approximately 600 students and science-based professionals participated. Such numbers highlight the willingness of research scientists and other professionals to spend time with students and explain the inner workings of their career paths.

For example, the director of the emergency room at a Sydney hospital spent a half day with a UNSW student, escorting him around the hospital and introducing him to the world of triage. The student learnt that there was more to being a physician than simply performing clinical procedures. He found that skills such as problem-solving and teamwork were equally important, and he left inspired to pursue a career in this speciality.

The physician highlighted that he did not make the decision to pursue medicine during high school, yet he still gained the opportunity to undertake a successful medical career. That sort of revelation may be interesting to those who think that medical careers are spawned at an early age and cultivated in an unfaltering fashion throughout high school. You do get a “second chance” if you work hard.

WWDS stories often document science-based professionals who had little idea about careers in high school yet they now seem to be highly engaged in their jobs. For instance, an astrophysicist described an early aim to pursue an arts degree, subsequent training and work as a nurse, and then a passion for physics.

On the other hand, some stories show that career happiness can follow careful planning and an unwavering focus, such as one award-winning astronomer who wanted to study the stars from the age of four.

Trends in Career Path

Although no two career trajectories are likely to be the same (see Box), some common characteristics emerge.

The professionals profiled in WWDS rarely describe themselves as lonely nerds in high school. Extracurricular activities initiated in youth and continued in adulthood range from surfing to acting to hanging out with friends. These accounts challenge the stereotypical view of the life of a scientist being largely confined to the laboratory. Furthermore, a significant proportion of the science-based professionals profiled are not laboratory scientists.

The profiles rarely reveal a recognition of outstanding abilities, such as being “great with numbers” being central in a career choice. However, patience is commonly mentioned as necessary for gaining traction in a science career. Patience is invaluable, according to these reports, whether it be the biotechnologist applying for much-needed funding for research, the physicist attempting to persuade colleagues about the importance of data from a recent experiment, or the science teacher working with students to enable them to understand a concept. Nobel Laureate Dr Barry Marshall, for example, campaigned for a decade to get the medical community to accept the idea that bacteria cause stomach ulcers.

Although patience is important, research on the human brain suggests that this patience for most people arrives only in their mid-20s, when their frontal lobes – the home for impulse control – settle down. One can infer that a range of attributes and factors other than patience, from curiosity to chance opportunities, must be driving young people through adolescence and early adulthood while they form a knowledge base in science and commitment to a career path in science. The pay-off can then start to roll in during their mid-20s, when they have developed the fortitude for mastering complex, time-consuming tasks, the painstaking efforts that may take years to reveal novel discoveries or other significant outcomes.

Scientists and science-based professionals in their WWDS stories often make reference to the time spent studying as an “investment” that requires a reasonable level of commitment. Others explain that having a passion for their chosen field is essential to maintaining such commitment, particularly in the event of tested patience, such as experiments that do not work or job opportunities that take time to materialise. Some report an element of luck being involved in science, with the odds of breakthroughs in research being likened to that of a lottery.

Despite the popular image of success in science being in terms of a discovery hailed around the world, WWDS accounts by scientists rarely mention a need for recognition by colleagues and impressive salaries. The professionals who agree to be interviewed seem to have internalised their commitment to science. That may be why they agree to the student interviews in the first place. They have a drive that they have found rewarding, and they want to share what they have learnt with today’s youth.

An innate interest in the “how and why” seems to be a powerful force in a science career. Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty (1996 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology), in his foreword for UNSW’s WWDS 2007 website/CD-ROM, proposes that “scientists have one simple thing in common, ‘a natural curiosity’”. Dr Fiona Wood, 2005 Australian of the Year and developer of “spray-on skin” for burn victims, who also contributed a foreword, describes herself as a “why” kid who turned into a “why” doctor – someone who is always seeking to discover the causes for disease or biological mechanisms to employ in a cure.

One can conclude then that, despite diverse interests and catalysts for their career paths, people who choose science have an inner drive that eventually surfaces and guides their choices of what to study and do. They recognise the importance of patience and eventually develop the necessary fortitude. They value what they are doing, but they did not necessarily see that value when they were young.

Given the variety of career pathways, one wonders what sort of advice to offer when a young person asks: “What can someone like me do?”

Matchmaking for Students

WWDS provides a platform for students to see their similarity with science-based professionals and to form connections with students like themselves around the world. Each person profiled on the WWDS website is characterised in terms of responses to a five-question “personality test”. A student-reporter interviews a computer engineer or GP, for example, and asks questions such as: “When you were 16 years old, would you rather have been tromping through the jungle with a film crew or having dinner with a Nobel Prize winner?”

A high school student who visits the WWDS website answers the same questions, and the site presents the student with the individuals profiled who gave the same answers as they did. In this sort of “matchmaking” procedure, students discover people who are just like them who ended up in professions that the student might never have imagined existed.

The WWDS website enables students to select “favourites” among the scientists profiled. Students can enter a brief profile of themselves (no last names, though, for reasons of confidentiality). These profiles permit the website to provide each student visitor with a list of not only the best-matching science-based professionals but also the best-matching individuals among other student visitors.

For example, if Jane of Adelaide prefers dining with a Nobel Prize winner, then she is matched with Helmut of Wiesbaden, who has the same preferences. The matched students can then compare who they each listed as “favourite” science-based professionals, similar to a crude form of internet “tagging” or Facebook friend-making.

Benefits for Teachers and Professionals

Teachers gain access to a wealth of current insight on science careers, allowing them to keep up-to-date with career options and build their own sense of connection with scientific professionals. They can search the site for professionals in specific careers using the keyword search functionality.

Under development currently are lesson plans tied to the New South Wales high school syllabus. Teachers can use them to guide students around the WWDS website.

Science-based professionals stand to benefit through WWDS participation as well. Spending time with a student-reporter allows them to share their passion for their field of science and, one hopes, inspire the interviewer, or their readers, to pursue a similar career. The professional also gets practice explaining their work to a non-specialist.

This type of lay synopsis of an area of science tends to be clustered by profession or speciality in a typical career resource. Much as that may suit the scientist, illustrating where they sit in the “tree of science”, the attraction this has for students who have never heard of the profession is questionable. Students can more readily see the range of options in science via the “randomness” of the personality and preference matching enabled by WWDS.

However, both the professional identities of those profiled and student curiosity can be served by exploiting the web’s flexibility. Different “entry points” to the WWDS site can be created to suit the different interests and goals of students, teachers and professionals.

For example, physicists will soon be able to enter stories – and view their colleagues’ submissions – through one “physics” interface. Similar portals can be created for the staff of a particular research institute. A biology teacher, or dedicated biology student, could also use such an interface to highlight careers just in that area of science.

This clustering of stories serves the scientists who are involved by reinforcing their professional identity. This should add to their satisfaction with participation in WWDS, which can then boost their confidence in engaging in other outreach activities.

Welcoming to a Community of Practice

The multiple interfaces that WWDS provides for students, teachers and scientists represent doorways inviting members of these audiences to interact with one another. This interaction is an essential element in the “community of practice” strategy that is at the heart of WWDS.

Communities of practice are occupational groups, such as microbiologists, where one can move from marginal membership as a student to full membership as a practising professional, whether researcher, teacher or storefront practitioner. WWDS enables students to take advantage of the legitimacy of their student status to learn what it takes to belong to a professional community in science.

WWDS has student-reporters meeting science-based professionals and learning that students are indeed welcome to engage in conversations with these professionals. Students who visit the WWDS website learn about people who were similar to them when those professionals were young. Both are thus engaging in a form of “social networking”. They are addressing questions not only of “What should I do?” but “What community (of practice) should I join? Where might I feel welcome?”

This community of practice angle is becoming increasingly familiar in educational circles. It accounts for the fact that students do not just want information about jobs. They want to know where they belong.

Authentic Stories

WWDS is picking up on the trend toward capturing authentic stories and profiling individual experiences, preferences and aims. Accounts gathered to date indicate that there are many paths into the wide range of science-based professions. Students who never imagined that a career in science was for them might just find a counterpart, a role model in the scientific community.

Students, teachers or working professionals in science can contribute to the WWDS. Visit www.dayinscience.unsw.edu.au for further information.