Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Origin Story

One of the things that I'm surprised scientists don't talk about more is why/how they became what they are. The feeling I get from others is that we've each had a 'calling' that led us to where we are and we just accept it as that. Or perhaps it is that many scientists don't have the best interpersonal skills and discussing something this personal may be uncomfortable. I really don't know. But when I have gotten colleagues to discuss the matter, the stories I've heard are varied and compelling. So, here's my origin story...

I grew up in Western Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh. Way outside and mostly in rural areas and then later in suburban areas. I have always 'known' on some level of what I wanted to be and it centered around science and space. As a child, the hero job that fit the bill was astronaut. Later, I discovered that there are many careers in science and decided that astronomer was much closer to my aspirations. I was fortunate enough to get a first class science education at my high school and took 2 years of physics, 1 year each of biology and chemistry and took a semester each of astronomy, geology and ecology. It was my physics teacher (the same for both years) that first exposed me to relativity and that is when I was hooked! It was mind blowing learning how time is not constant nor is length or mass for that matter! I didn't know exactly how I was going to use this, but I knew that this is something I wanted to pursue.

Then came college. I knew that I wanted to go on to graduate study, so most of my time in college I spent trying to excel in the physics major hoping for acceptance into a respected doctoral program. I went to Frostburg State University and graduated early. While there wasn't much to do as an undergraduate in relativity, I focused my attention on astronomy and was able to perform independent study in astrophotography.

When looking for graduate schools, I wanted to choose a research project that would allow me to work in both astronomy and relativity. I was admitted to Penn State and started work on the LIGO project. And today I work at one of the 2 LIGO sites.

While I feel like I've been privileged to always have a sense of direction as far as my career is concerned, I was not so focused academically. I was a horrible student! Sometimes when I work with visiting school groups to the observatory, I am asked if I really am a scientist and if I'm a genius. Yes, I am a real scientist but I am far from a genius! I had difficulty all though school and only started to find my academic focus once I was in high school. (One marking period in 4th grade, I received 4 F's on my report and they wanted to put me back in 3rd grade.) Establishing yourself as a scientist doesn't mean that science has to come easy to you - all you need to do is be persistent in learning the material and scientific methods. Even in college and grad school, I struggled and it just took hard work and persistence to get through it. Now that I am done with school, there is still no end to the struggle - but it is a struggle that I enjoy and the rewards are worth much more than the costs.

Are you a scientist and want to share your origin story? Feel free to leave a comment! Are you a student and think that you would like to be a scientist? Please leave a comment with your plans!

A special thanks goes out to: Mr. R. C. Bowman of Hempfield Area High School for exposing me to Relativity for the first time, to Dr. George Plitnik and Dr. Greg Latta for guiding me through college and to Dr.s Gabriela Gonzalez and Sam Finn for seeing me through grad school and establishing me in LIGO!