Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Meet Guest Blogger Heidi Jensen

Heidi B. Jensen is currently looking for opportunities that will lead her to a career in communicating and publicizing science. Heidi would like to use the skills she learned from her M.S. thesis research at SUNY Stony Brook University, specializing in aqueous geochemistry applied to the martian surface, to help the science community make a greater impact on the general public. Heidi is currently employed outside of science while she waits for her first scientific position after graduate school. 

Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in the Hudson River Valley, about 75 miles north of New York City. I was curiously fascinated with and appreciative of the natural world around me and science provided me with explanations for the natural phenomena that had seems so mysterious and amazing. I was one of the few people in my high school graduating class that knew exactly what I wanted to concentrate my studies in for my undergraduate years at SUNY University at Albany; environmental science. From my experiences outside of academia, I became aware that a lack of interest in preserving the natural world and preventing continued damage to it was caused by two things: a lack of understanding of the observations and science findings that indicated environmental degradation and financial and more basic struggles that kept their attention. Due to this and my experiences as an instructor and researcher in graduate school at Stony Brook University, I have grown to love teaching and communicating science and have made it the main requirement for my next step in my career.

Describe your most recent position within the field.

After completing my Master’s thesis in 2011 studying the presence of chloride-bearing deposits on the surface of mars using both remote sensing and laboratory analogue studies, I wanted to return my attention to preserving the natural world and shifted my academic research interests towards aqueous geochemistry. I moved three labs over at Stony Brook University and, under the guidance of Professor Richard Reeder, learned about a number of spectroscopic and scattering techniques, many involving using national synchrotron light sources at national lab facilities. Despite my advisers previous success and attempts to attain funding, the success rates were not in his favor and I struggled to maintain funding, leading me to seek out unconventional funding sources. For one year I was a teaching news fellow in the Journalism Department, making me realize that teaching was very natural and rewarding to me. Despite that, I was relieved when my adviser was a Co-I on a funded grant proposal that I was unusually qualified to work on in the next year. This project allowed me to combine the knowledge gained from my M.S. thesis work and the synthesis and analytical techniques gained working with Rich to investigate the structural and geochemical characteristics of amorphous Fe and Mg sulfates and the feasibility of their presence on the martian surface. While this topic was interesting to me, I made the difficult decision to leave graduate school at the end of the summer term in 2014. I spent some time figuring out what I would like to concentrate on in my career and decided to move to the DC area in December of last year to seek out a future in communicating and publicizing science.

What types of new opportunities are you looking for now?

This is one of them! I would like to start thinking and writing about scientific topics and testing myself to see if science journalism and the communication and publicity of science is really something that I will find satisfying and prepared to excel at.

In addition to becoming more comfortable writing, as I will be doing as a guest contributor, I still have more work to do to be an effective communicator for large audiences. For example, I have made presentations to a group of ~40 scientists in the past but I have not yet become comfortable speaking to a larger group or a general audience.

I know I have potential and enjoy working on a problem intensively, but I need to actually get a science job that can prove that I have more to offer than my academic history.
What pros and cons do you believe come from having a Masters in Science?

Being a graduate student and writing a research-based M.S. thesis gave me many experiences that make me a competitive job candidate. Making both oral and written presentations of my research results both made me more comfortable speaking publically and writing scientifically. It also exposed me to varying scientific perspectives, whether I was attending an international conference or displaying my progress to members of my academic department. I have also heard that for some positions it is an advantage to not have a PhD due to assumptions of salary requirements and an overly minimized focus.

There are a few disadvantages to having a Masters in Science that I have observed. I find myself to be overeducated but under-experienced for the positions that I am applying for. Internships and fellowships that would give me the desired experience can be quite challenging because it appears that they are more interested in recent undergraduates that both are less experienced in life but more educated in the specific field. In the current job market, I am also competing with people that are similarly under-experienced but have a PhD degree, giving them an advantage over me.

How have these pros and cons impacted your current employment status and your move to DC?

I made the choice to move to DC due to the sheer number of positions that are of interest to me in comparison with the NYC area. I have also broadened my job searches to include positions that will give me work experience in areas that I am lacking, such as program management skills or experience within a governmental agency or non-profit organization.

While I wait to get my first position in my career path, I have compromised and work at Starbucks. The job lets me work really hard giving me a sense of accomplishment, allows me to have a social outlet, and offers affordable health insurance. My only complaints are that I get bored of the monotonous and sometimes mindless routine and miss talking about science with an educated audience.
What skills do you believe are critical to science communicators? How does having an advanced degree enhance that position?

Assessing your audience is important to make sure that your presentation is worthwhile. If your presentation is too technical or not technical enough you may lose people by the time you get through your introduction. I was lucky to be part of Alan Alda’s Communicating Science workshop a few years ago at Stony Brook University and they began breaking me of all the jargon and acronyms that I was taught that I must know. These are generally lost even on people in your general field of science and if they are necessary they must be fully explained in a coherent way before moving on. When I first began giving presentations, I would make word by word scripts of what I would say and I find that makes it impossible to alter your presentation to cater to your audience and increases the likelihood of becoming derailed when something unexpected happens (i.e. Presentation software failure, laser pointer stops working).

The most important lesson I learned about presenting as an instructor and as a graduate student, is to not procrastinate. You can generally expect a better experience for both you and your audience if you are more prepared regarding the presentation’s topic and for any possible questions and caveats that may come up.

My advanced degree gave me more opportunities to become comfortable making oral presentations, writing manuscripts for publication and designing poster presentations for conferences.
Where do you hope to see yourself in 5 years?

I hope to be in the second job on my career path. I would like to be assisting research scientists in having their findings make a difference to the general public and making science accessible and appealing to the general public. I am pretty open-minded about how my career path develops.
Why is mental health a critical component of success, as a student, a scientist, and a communicator?

Working on my mental health made me able to approach problems in my life from a realistic and honest perspective. At some point in my quest for mental health, I became able to call myself out when I was passing judgements based on low self-esteem/ self-worth or an illogical mental construction about how a situation would pan out. When you think you are going to fail before you start, being a student, a scientist, and communicator is more difficult. My experiences with mental health problems made me come to terms with my actual shortcomings while also allowing me to take credit for my achievements. Professional mental help can release you from your perspective using input from a non-interested party with training designed to be therapeutic. Therapy made me more gentle and accepting of my whole self and that has made me more intuitive and accepting of people that I interact with. When working as part of a team as a scientist or trying to communicate, it is important to not have so much going on internally that you are not aware of the needs of others. Especially in the case of communicating, being in the moment and aware allows you to adapt as you sense your success in communicating with your audience without becoming flustered or shutting down.
What other things do you do for enjoyment and to stay mental healthy?

I have always loved to take walks and hikes in for my mental and physical health. Ever since I quit smoking cigarettes about 2 years ago, I have wanted to be able to regularly run more than a mile without stopping but that has proven itself to be far more difficult than I expected. In the last few months I have started doing yoga and it has made a huge difference for the body and mind. I have muscle definition that I didn’t know was possible previously. I am a creature of habit so I like to practice yoga every day.
As this is an introduction to you as a guest blogger for the Women in Astronomy blog, can you fill us in on many of the topics you'd like to cover?

1. Mental health, not only to be a better scientist but so that you can be happy doing it.
2. The change in academia that is/needs to occur now that there are “too many” PhD degree holders.
3. How working on my mental health helped me to decide to leave graduate school without my PhD degree.
4. Career options outside of academia.

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