How Elizabeth Waters took a love of mentoring and training into Rockefeller University’s teaching labs.
After completing her PhD at Oregon Health Science University and doing postdoctoral and associate researcher work in neuroscience at Rockefeller University, Elizabeth Waters transitioned to a position in science outreach there. She describes her move to science education.
Click here to read about how Waters pursued science outreach as a career.
What do you do as lead scientist at the university’s outreach programme?
We offer lab classes to NYC high school students. This was something that was previously run twice a year and now it is run twice a week. We introduce kids and their teachers to the molecular biology skills that were so important in Rockefeller’s discoveries, and to the idea of how scientists choose what scientific questions interest them. We ask: do you like top down questions or bottom up questions? Even in science, you have to discover what kind of scientist you want to be.
When did you first consider careers outside of research?
I always enjoyed training people in lab and mentoring them. It was not until I was doing my postdoc that it occurred to me that the career I was preparing for did not actually have all the parts of science that I enjoyed. I started talking to lots of other people: people who were non tenure-track faculty, lawyers, and people at foundations. It was after that that I chose science education.
What advice do you have for others transitioning from the bench?
Take as much time as you have to find something that matches your personal skill set and your personal mission. Your next step away from the bench doesn’t need to be what you’ll do forever, but it should be something that moves you in the right direction.
If you know that you want to move away from working at the bench full time, at some point you probably have to sacrifice a bit of productivity to get the skills and network that you need to make that transition. Of course you need to coordinate with your PI. I started modestly, volunteering during my evenings and weekends to plan outreach events and do adjunct teaching.
How did you end up taking a position in outreach at Rockefeller University, the same institution where you worked as a researcher?
In some ways the interviews at other institutions were easier. I knew many of the people who interviewed me here, so I felt very self-conscious. I wanted them to see me in this new role and not strictly as a researcher. I spent my time highlighting that I had a transferrable skill set and that I had a vision for what type of outreach could serve Rockefeller’s mission. When I got the job, it was a transition for me to realize that people were expecting me to show up at the same time every day. As a researcher, I worked 80 hours a week, but it was any 80 I wanted.
How did your colleagues in research respond when you described your plans for the future?
Academia is still coming to the idea that there are careers outside academia. There was always a surprised “oh!”, and then, “you’ll be good at that”.
One part of science that I like is that it’s project-based. Every three years when you write a grant, you have time to reflect on your mission and bigger questions. I got into science because I was interested in improving women’s health. When I started working in science education, it wasn’t a stretch from my original love of science. I’m working with high school science students to improve their science literacy. Clearly I’m still serving my greater mission.
Interview by Monya Baker