Interview Excerpts: What First Made CCNY Distinguished Professors Pursue Science Careers

by mcjonsey

What makes people want to pursue science as a career?

Substantial time and research have been devoted to finding answers to this question. While there isn’t a universal solution to the issues, studying those already in the field can provide key insights. The RICC team recently interviewed Drs. Ruth Stark, Mitch Schaffler, and Parameswaran Nair, and asked them when they first realized they wanted to pursue a career in science.

One common element across the interviews was the presence of a preexisting interest in science early in life. Early on, Dr. Stark knew that she liked science, as well as many other subjects. When she started college, she was torn between chemistry and economics. She finally chose chemistry when it posed more of an intellectual challenge, like when she struggled with organic chemistry in her second year.

“My first semester (of organic chemistry) was a disaster.” Dr. Stark said. “One of the things that convinced me that this was the field from me was coming back from that disaster.”

Dr. Schaffler grew up loving such disparate subjects as paleontology, mechanics, and marine biology – shell structures in particular. Parameswaran Nair also had interest from a young age, though not necessarily in science: growing up, he often competed with his older cousin in a rivalry of one-upmanship, and science was often included in that competition.

The professors also received encouragement from outside parties early in their development. For Dr. Stark, that encouragement came when she observed her thermodynamics professor teach in graduate school. The professor, she said, would teach his class how to think, showing them how to work through a problem in five different ways. This helped push her to pursue a career as a professor. A professor in Dr. Schaffler’s undergraduate years involved Dr. Schaffler in research focused on skull morphology and mathematical approaches to skull structure. Dr. Nair’s encouragement came from his peers. When he was in 7th grade, Dr. Nair began meeting with a group of students in his hometown in India – Without any adult prompting them – to discuss physics and math together.

When discussing these meetings, Dr. Nair said, “One thing that really helps people learn, at least in my experience, is having a lot of peers who have the same interests. There’s this dynamic, that you try to learn from others, but also you want to be a little better than the others, and it works out.”

Finally, hands-on work was an important factor in the professors’ choice to pursue science as a career. Dr. Stark’s experience came from laboratory work – as an undergraduate, she worked in an organic chemistry lab, and cites this time as influencing her later choice to pursue science as a career. Dr. Schaffler’s hands-on experience came from the skull morphology work mentioned previously.

“And then somewhere along the way,” Dr. Schaffler said, “I had an undergraduate professor who got me involved in research that involved looking at morphology and mechanical approaches to skeletal structure. And I said, ‘This is extremely cool!’ And It just sort of made sense to me. Also, he showed me you could make a living doing stuff like this.”

Dr. Nair’s hands-on experience comes back to his rivalry with his cousin. When his cousin said he knew how an electric motor worked, Nair on his own, sought out information so he could also see how it worked. Once he did, his interest in science, and physics, in particular, was piqued.

Each of the interviewed professors had different “light bulb moments”, so to speak, that convinced them to pursue science as a career. One of the most apparent revelations from these interviews is that science is not accomplished in a vacuum. Chances to work in the field and associate with their peers, as well as receive guidance, seem incredibly important in encouraging people to pursue science as a career. These commonalities may serve as enlightenment for those encouraging others to consider pursuing science as a career.

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