The Santa Barbara STEM Major, and Seeing Yourself in Science

After one of our weekly research group meetings, Dr. Moskovits (my advisor) regaled us with stories of his trips around the world, of the food he has eaten and the beautiful places he has visited throughout his life. When he came to the EUREKA Dinner with Faculty, he entertained our entire table with the jokes and stories he’s accumulated over his career.

At the same dinner, I met a number of other professors who are equally entertaining and worldly—in particular, I spoke to Drs. Joel Rothman and David Lowe, whose characteristic sense of humor is definitely Dad Joke™. I think every undergraduate who attended was enthralled with the warmth and depth of personality that each of these professional researchers possessed.

The stereotypical STEM major is characterized by a lack of hygiene, interpersonal skills, and appreciation for activities that do not involve a computer. I do know plenty of scientists and engineers who scoff at any artistic, spiritual, or physical endeavor outside of the lab. These people do exist—as they do in all fields.

Upon entering college, I was extremely surprised and very happy to realize that the vast majority of the STEM fields are composed of talented human beings of every flavor and fashion. Scientific research is not conducted in basements exclusively by old white men with crazy hair (this I say in loving acknowledgment of many friends and researchers I know). Perhaps this was once true, but today’s leading researchers and innovators are vivid personalities with amazing stories to tell.

For each of the shut-in savants I’ve met, I could fill entire lecture halls with hilarious, athletic, artistic, and inspiration people who have enriched my pursuit of a STEM education. We are yoga instructors, artists, scholarship athletes, musicians. We are some of the best-dressed, well-read students and professionals around town. The fields we work in require us to hone our written and oral communication skills and to thrive in team settings.

The scientific fields are becoming more accepting and accessible to students from all walks of life, but that may only be apparent once immersed in the world of science. You don’t see this in popular culture or even from high school counselors. For those on the outside—the students who are making the crucial decision whether or not to pursue a career in STEM—this kind of stereotypical and patently false image is off-putting and discouraging.

That is why it is so important for scientific institutions to have these blogs, and outreach programs, and community participation—to show, not just tell the world what the true scientific community looks like, and to show children and young adults that they have a place in it.

Scientific researchers don’t just look like Einstein and stock photos of Mad Scientists. Scientific researchers look like you and me—young people with backgrounds as diverse as the passions and pursuits we have, both inside and outside of science.

The Discernment Process: Finding Direction in the Dark

It’s hard to know what you don’t know. Plenty of people can tell you how to do literature searches or how to write strong applications for research experiences or industry internships—but what if you don’t know where to begin, or what your interests are?

At seventeen and eighteen, many of us feel woefully under-prepared for these kinds of decisions, and I’m told that it doesn’t get much easier after this either. Change is scary, but you can cope with it by learning as much about new situations as possible. There’s comfort in knowledge.

But how do you search for what to search for? From my experience, this kind of learning comes through osmosis. I recommend that you surround yourself with a diverse crowd—people from all walks of life, with a variety of interests, career paths, and varied goals—you’ll start picking up on the possibilities out there for you.

There are some things we can just feel out for ourselves: words such as internship just buzz in our ears. Other things, like Ph.D. and undergraduate research may be more nebulous. No one in my family has ever attempted a graduate degree like that, and coming into college, I genuinely had no real idea of what a graduate degree entailed.

Through a two-week internship (SIMS) here at UCSB, I was introduced to a passionate group of friends and a network of industry professionals, academic researchers, and staff willing to share their career paths with me. That two-week research experience gave me a strong foundation, and the diverse network of support I wanted, on which to build my freshman year.

SIMS 2014

Over the course of this year, I’ve spoken with these professional and academics about their career trajectories, decisions, and interests. All the while, I imagined myself in their shoes—whether it was making hair gels and organic LED screens in industry, or fabricating nanoscale photovoltaic devices and modeling hydrophobic molecular interactions in academia.

Without really trying, I had started the discernment process.

Only a quarter in to my freshman year, I had more questions than I had on the first day. But more importantly, I knew where to take my questions, and that these questions were educated by others’ experiences. These questions I had, and those I still have, are directed toward figuring out my own path:

Will I pursue a PhD. or a career in industry—or both? Even within those options, there’s a thousand paths to take, and I won’t know which is for me until I’ve tried.

PhD Comics: How Graduate School is Just Like Kindergarten