In one form or another, education and public outreach (EPO) has been an integral part of my career as a scientist. This has come as something of a surprise since I always thought that a scientist's career was some combination of research and teaching. For many scientists, though, EPO becomes a vocation, a calling that feeds on and informs their research and teaching. Yet, EPO is seldom rewarded, and there are very few positions that explicitly combine EPO with research and teaching. Here, I suggest that it would be in our profession's best interest to create such positions and to officially recognize the EPO work that, now, is often done in the shadows.
On the very first day of my graduate studies, I was recruited by my fellow students into the Tel Aviv University AstroClub. We organized a public lecture series, translated the Astronomy Picture of the Day website into Hebrew every day, and organized special events and open houses at the Wise Observatory. I was then extremely lucky to finish my Ph.D. at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). I gave public talks, taught a summer laboratory course for junior-high students, advised on the production of the Dark Universe space show, and served as the scientific advisor for the museum's astronomy Science Bulletins.
For me, the Education part of EPO has focused on mentoring, to which I was introduced at AMNH. It is now commonly accepted that mentoring by role models helps recruit students into science, technology, engineering, and math fields and helps retain and advance them along the academic ladder. There are now mentoring programs available for all stages of a scientist's career. At AMNH, I served as a mentor in the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program (SRMP), through which I mentored 17 high-school students (and continued to support them for years afterwards, e.g., through letters of recommendation). Once in college, students can apply for a range of programs, such as the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates. So-called “bridge” programs help students from underrepresented groups make the leap from college to graduate school. Some funding agencies, such as the NSF, require principal investigators to submit mentoring plans for any postdocs included in grant applications. Senior faculty members often mentor junior faculty on their way to tenure.
Through SRMP, I learned how to advise students. This was a steep learning curve: from one year to the next, I learned how to come up with projects to suit students' interests and skills; how to work with students with widely differing personalities and work styles; and how to impart my own knowledge while letting students share theirs. I discovered that I preferred a hands-off approach but learned when to step in nonetheless. These skills are critical for many academic positions. But if it were not for SRMP, I would have had to learn them as a professor, a realization that now terrifies me.
My time as a mentor in AMNH SRMP drove me to create my own mentoring program at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I did this under the auspices of an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship, which specifically calls for applicants to devise new EPO programs. I have learned how to raise funds, recruit students and mentors, manage the bureaucracy of a large program, mentor other mentors, and manage my time efficiently. Again, skills that professors are expected to possess yet are seldom taught.
My EPO experiences have taught me important skills and invigorated my research. I am now confident that I can be a good teacher and advisor. Yet, for most of my career, my EPO activities were viewed by my supervisors, colleagues, and even myself, as only a hobby. Some supervisors dissuade students and postdocs from engaging in EPO activities, preferring that they invest their time in either research or teaching. There is also a perception prevalent among early-career scientists that hiring and tenure committees pay scant, if any, attention to a candidate's EPO achievements. So, many early-career scientists shy away from EPO.
I propose two adjustments to the way we treat EPO as part of a scientific career: (1) create permanent positions that officially include EPO and (2) change the perception, and in some cases practice, that hiring and tenure committees do not value a candidate's EPO portfolio.
An EPO position should still be paired with either teaching or research (or both), as all three are interconnected. A scientist's research often informs what courses they teach and how they approach them. Teaching often catalyzes research, either by attracting students to a scientist's group or by generating new ideas. Similarly, EPO can energize and revitalize research and teaching. Zooniverse, for example, allows the public to actively participate in dozens of research projects, advancing both EPO and research. Students in SRMPs end up publishing research papers or presenting their results in international conferences. Conversely, for EPO to be successful, it should be tightly tied to research. SRMPs, for example, cannot function if their directors and mentors are not researchers themselves. And there is nothing like the experience of teaching to help EPO practitioners successfully communicate with their audiences.
Of the many reasons for academic institutions to create such joint positions, I will list only four. First, funding. All NSF solicitations, for example, require a “broader impacts” section—an EPO program that disseminates the proposed research program's results to the public. EPO programs that serve larger audiences, on larger scales (national > state > town > campus), are often preferred. Moreover, EPO programs open funding avenues that research might not, such as certain private foundations, donors, and local government. Second, EPO programs help academic institutions foster “town-and-gown” relationships with their host communities (which can, once again, lead to new funding sources). Third, successful EPO programs that gather public recognition can bring in just as much prestige for the institution as successful research programs (e.g., the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master's-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program or Neil deGrasse Tyson's tenure as the director of the Hayden Planetarium at AMNH). Finally, we live in an unfortunate time when science has been overly politicized and ripped along partisan lines. Now, more than ever, we need to continually convince the public that science is a worthy investment; we can only do this by constantly reaching out and flinging the doors to academia wide open.
Job ads could make explicit mention of EPO, asking candidates for EPO statements, just as they ask for teaching and research. At minimum, it would be worth asking candidates to include their EPO experience in their CVs. Supervisors should also encourage their students and postdocs to take part in EPO, if only for the sake of their own professional development.
EPO has become a critical part of my career, and I know that wherever I end up, I will continue to engage with the public. But any type of EPO activity, whether it targets three people or three million, requires a sustained investment of time, money, and effort. I would feel more confident, and free, to continue to pursue EPO if I knew that whichever institution I landed in supported and valued EPO as much as I do.
This guest editorial is the third in the series announced at the end of the editorial in the October 2017 issue (85(10), 729). The first of these guest editorials immediately follows that editorial. The second is at the start of the February 2018 issue (86(2), 85).