Nobody I have met so far has said “When I grow up I want to teach Biotechnology.” Believe me, I truly enjoy teaching Biotechnology and, despite having opportunities to teach other courses such as AP Biology and Chemistry, wouldn’t want it any other way. So how did I end up teaching such a wonderful course?
As I imagine is true for most Biotechnology teachers, my personal journey is convoluted to say the least. My initial goal in high school was to go into medicine. I imagined being a doctor and spent a lot of time volunteering at one of the local hospitals. As with most high school students, however, my goals were based on fairly simplistic plans. I liked my science classes and earned pretty good grades. In my mind, good science student = doctor.
I am not suggesting this was a bad goal, but this was also the teenage boy who was very interested in being the Georgetown Hoya. This was the mid-80’s and I loved college basketball. My favorite player was Patrick Ewing and he played for Georgetown University. I figured being the guy in the Hoya costume (a large bulldog) was my ticket into games. Like I said, my plans were not well-formed.
Despite this strong interest, I elected to go to Cornell University. As they say, “Ithaca is Gorges” (it’s a pun, you should really visit if you get the chance). What they also say is “Intro Chemistry is ridiculously hard” – especially when your professor is Nobel Prize winner Roald Hoffman. A third saying is “Ivy League schools are not cheap.” I was able to afford the first year on a Navy ROTC scholarship, but the overall environment was not a good fit and I decided to transfer to Valparaiso University.
This turned out to be an outstanding move. Valparaiso is about 1/5th the size of Cornell (3000 students vs 15000 students) and it gave me a chance to get to know my professors very well. My wife (also a Valpo grad) and I visited campus 5 years ago, a full 20 years after we had graduated. Professors called us by name as soon as they saw us and took us out for lunch.
I enjoyed Valparaiso a lot. I did not enjoy Organic Chemistry (a lot) and it was time to determine a new career path. I decided that I would major in education and teach high school biology.
Mission accomplished, right? End of story? Not exactly. Spring semester of my junior year, I took a class on Molecular Genetics which completely changed my career goals. In this class I got to, in my professor’s words, “play with DNA.” We performed gel electrophoresis. We did PCR. We isolated the luciferase gene. We transformed it into bacteria. We made them glow. It. Was. Amazing.
For the first time, I was interested in science, not because I should be interested in it if I wanted to be a doctor or a science teacher, but because I found the topic truly engrossing. How does DNA work to code for traits? How does it get mutated? How do we analyze it using the tools in the lab?
I shared this newfound interest with my professor and he suggested putting an education career on hold and pursuing research in graduate school instead. A year later, my wife and I graduated in May, got married in July, and both started graduate school in August at UW-Madison – she in Nutritional Sciences and me in Cellular and Molecular Biology.
I am not going to linger on the graduate school experience. I think most of us who went to grad school to do scientific research all had similar experiences. We are better for it, but there is no real way to explain the rigors of (1) going into the lab every day (and I mean, every day including all weekends and holidays) and hoping that your experiments were working; (2) standing in front of a committee of professors who literally wrote the biochemistry textbook on which your research was based; and, (3) wondering if you were ever going to measure up to their expectations.
No offense to those who have a graduate degree in social sciences like education, but the experience doesn’t compare. At the same time, I am who I am because of those experiences. I know how to stake a claim based on evidence and not overstate conclusions. This drives my students nuts because it sounds like I am being non-committal, but I know I cannot state things for which I do not have evidence.
I also know how to respond by stating what I know, explaining what I don’t know, but also conjecturing what could be possible given the conditions. It is very important to be comfortable with saying “I don’t know, but here’s what I think.” My students truly appreciate this. I can think on my feet because of my experiences in graduate school and not just say “I don’t know.” I would not want to go back to graduate school, but I am grateful for how it shaped me.
It was at graduate school that I also made the shift back to high school education. While I was enjoying research, my education goal was never to be a research scientist. If anything, I was planning on getting a Ph.D. and teaching at a university where I could focus on teaching and not research. Probably not what my P.I. wanted to hear. When I was toying with the idea of getting my teaching certificate, I took a course at the BTC Institute – “Core Techniques in Protein and Genetic Engineering.” It was a great two week experience taught by some outstanding professors, but it was the last day on my way out the door which was most pivotal. I had a conversation with Dr. Karin Borgh, the executive director. We talked about my interest in teaching and she suggested that I speak with Kathryn Eilert, an amazing teacher at Middleton-Cross Plains Area High School who taught a course in biotechnology.
I gave Kathryn a call and she strongly encouraged me to pursue a teaching certification. I finished my Master’s Degree and started the Education program at UW. I was fortunate enough to student teach with Kathryn and saw that many of the techniques that I did in my research were ones that she was able to do with her students. This encouraged me to find other high school biotech programs in the Madison area. Fortuitously, a biotech and biology position opened at Oregon High School the spring of 2001 and I haven’t looked back. I figure at this point I have had close to 3000 students in biotechnology courses at OHS and in Youth Apprenticeship Program courses and summer programs for students and teachersat the BTC Institute.
And the college basketball interest? I have been working for the UW Athletic Department for the last 25 years as a statistician for their men’s and women’s basketball teams. Basically, I get paid to sit courtside and record the official NCAA stats. No Bucky Badger costume needed!
Like I said, this was a process that never had a direct line. All of my experiences, however, have been an important part of what I teach and how I teach it.
Well that is my pathway, what is yours? How did you get into teaching biotechnology? I am going to post this question at our LinkedIn page: BTC Institute Biotech Teacher Network. I look forward to reading about your responses.
Until next time.