Monday, May 27, 2013

Guest Post: Is your career making an impact? by Julia Kamenetzky

Julia Kamenetzky is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Her research focuses on extragalactic submillimeter spectroscopy, utilizing Z-Spec, Herschel, and ALMA.

We’ve probably all thought about the level of income, independence, and flexibility that we desire out of a career; some people choose to prioritize one thing over another.  An additional aspect is the degree to which one feels their career is making a positive impact on the world.  In that realm, the physical sciences suffer from a bit of an image problem.  This problem is especially applicable to the AASWomen Blog because girls and women are more likely to prioritize a career that benefits society [1, 2, and others in 3], and basic research is often not seen as fitting that goal.   (Remember, this doesn’t mean that all women do and all men don’t, just that by ignoring societal impacts we’re missing a large group of talented people, and many of them are women.)

That idea led me to study the ways that various scientific fields fulfill the National Science Foundation’s Broader Impacts Criterion [4].  I completed the first iteration of this study as part of an excellent graduate course in science policy.  I won’t go over the results, but in the beginning of the paper I discuss the history of this criterion and the reaction to its implementation in 1997.  After completing the course, I wondered “why aren’t we as scientists having these conversations, why are the policy analysts talking amongst themselves, with little interaction between the two groups?”  (One of my former students had similar thoughts about an undergraduate space policy course - “It should be required for every astronomy major!”)  I had heard scientists complain about having to justify broader impacts, but often without a good understanding of the many things “broader impacts” may mean (it is NOT exclusively outreach or diversity), and without taking a moment to think about why they might be asked for such justification.  

I myself once faced the feeling that I wanted to be “helping people” and “making a difference” and that a career in science wouldn’t fulfill those dreams.  My research advisor pointed out that, even outside of teaching, a large part of his job is mentoring.  I realized afterwards just how naive it was for me to imply that he didn’t help people, when I had been the recipient of his mentoring!  That experience, and this project, helped me see that I can make a career in science fit with my goals.

Therefore, I would encourage scientists to actively engage in discussions about why we do what we do and what is our role as scientists in a democratic society.  Seriously acknowledge the impacts that you have as mentors, teachers, and researchers.  It may not have been your first priority, but you’ve likely made an impact anyway.  Articulating why what you do is not research for research’s sake alone could catch the attention of a young, talented student who is unsure if science is right for them.

[4] Kamenetzky, “Opportunities for impact: Statistical analysis of the National Science Foudnation’s broader impacts criterion.” Science and Public Policy, 2013, 40:1, 72 [Contact me for an individual copy if you cannot access the journal.]