Monday, August 20, 2012


I’ll admit it – I’m an Olympics junkie. During these 17 days every two years, I stay up way too late to watch events I never think twice about otherwise. This summer they included synchronized diving, rowing, weightlifting, badminton, swimming – you name it, I’ve probably watched it. I’m addicted to watching thrills of victory and agonies of defeat, none closer to my heart this year than our local girl, Jordyn Wieber, who, though the 2011 World Champion in the All Around for gymnastics, failed to qualify for the same in the Olympics. My sister was a competitive gymnast, so I know her life, and my heart broke for Jordyn. However, as I watched her rebound during the team competition and witnessed the anxiety – and then the elation – of the close-knit teammates as they awaited the final score to post for the Team competition, I couldn’t help but think how much graduate school is like a gymnastics event. In fact, academia is very much like the Olympics in general.  You don’t believe me?  Let me explain… but forgive me if I stretch the analogies or flip-flop between ideas. 

Entering graduate school is like mounting a gymnastics apparatus – for a comparison, let’s just call it the beam, on which we have to balance the many aspects of our life as a graduate student. As we take courses, collect data, write programs, or build instruments, we are performing routines that get evaluated by judging advisors and reviewers.  Eventually, we dismount, graduating with a brain full of knowledge and a diploma in hand.  Sometimes we stick the landing, and sometimes we don’t. The anxieties and pressures are similar, and along the way, we might have to re-evaluate our progress and our goals, much as a gymnast must after a fall or an extra step. What is the new level we wish to achieve?  Or do we leave altogether?  Our team of friends, families, or advisors, who motivates us and cheers us on, despite extra steps and balance checks, helps us with those decisions.

To draw some uneven parallels, I think teaching is much like competing in the heptathlon, a collection of Track and Field events in which athletes compete in the 100-meter hurdles, the 200-meter sprint, the 800-meter run, the long jump, the javelin, the high jump, and the shotput. Since I try to expose my students to the whole Universe in just 15 weeks, I regularly sprint among topics and constantly answer questions that students throw at me.  Sometimes the hurdles of requisite math skills and expectations are easily overcome, but sometimes it’s a long leap for students to make the connections. Round and round I go with some of them! Honestly, when I’m finished teaching non-science majors about all things astronomy, I’m out of breath!

Research could be described as any kind of water event – smooth sailing, rough waters, or anything in between.  A team of colleagues analyzes the data and writes up the results, considering every stroke of the keyboard; sometimes it’s a crew of two, sometimes four, sometimes more.  We shoot the rapids as we discuss data and reviewer comments. Sometimes we go overboard, and sometimes not everyone has an oar in the water!

Though it is in meetings where we hone leadership skills, a professor’s greatest opponent has to be committee service and administrative work in general. Committees wrestle with policy, pin down curriculum modifications, or try to lift the institution and/or department to higher standards.  Weighty issues such as recruiting and retaining students and faculty are heavy responsibilities, but ones that need to be addressed.

Interspersed among all of these activities are the 100-meter dashes – short time-dependent events that need immediate attention.  For example, twice each semester, I’m reminded that the week of student advising is approaching and that I need to post a schedule (now) and notify my advisees (now) that it’s time to sign up for a meeting. Hallway (or doorway) conversations with my Department Chair take time, too, and refocus my attention from research to departmental issues, “for just a minute”.  Students stop in to ask about homework, have me sign a form, or just chat.  These events don’t take very long, but they draw my attention away and cause me to revisit the starting blocks of whatever I was doing before.

Academics aside, perhaps STEM in general could learn something from the 2012 Olympics. For the first time in history, Team USA had more women than men on it and the US women would rank #3 in gold medals (29/46), if they were ranked as a nation.  At the end of all competitions, women from all countries won more medals than men overall (60%), and more gold medals, too!

While the summer Olympics comes around just once every four years, the responsibilities of a faculty member never end.  As we compete in the academic arena, we have to remember to pace ourselves and remember that our presence as female participants is important.  Win lose, or draw, we, too, can inspire a generation!