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what’s going on in my life: the less inane version

January 4, 2011

Every now and then around here, I feel like taking a break from my busy blog life of telling you about how much I hate air travel, why my landlord is evil and my roommates are awesome, or whatever silly thing I feel like sharing.  What better way to take a break from these things than to let you know what’s actually going on?

Lots more behind the cut if you’re interested.

Let’s start with the easy part: I’m quitting leaving finishing grad school (I keep having to correct my language in regards to that; though I may see myself as quitting, since I’m not getting a PhD as originally intended and as is standard in physics, the world at large does not think of leaving a program after getting a master’s degree as anything resembling quitting, and there’s no reason for me to speak so negatively about a choice I’m thrilled to make).  Hooray!  So, come May, if all goes well I’ll have an MS in physics.  Then what?

The plan has always (always = since I decided to finish this year) been to get back into informal science education, similar to what I did part time as an undergrad, and full time for 8 months afterwards.  I worked at a planetarium and science center, and did everything from giving the live star talks to developing summer camps for first graders about the water cycle to writing newsletter articles to fixing broken projection equipment to helping coordinate marriage proposals under the dome.  A science museum is a killer place to be.

This plan is great for a few reasons, and a big pain for a few more.  On the great side, I already have a ton of experience as an informal educator, and great references and mentors in the field, especially since I worked at such a well-respected place.  I loved the work, and am knowledgeable in a content area that not many science educators know much about (most, in my experience, have education or life science degrees).  On the big pain side, there aren’t many science museums around, and there are even fewer that devote any resources to physical science (hence the abundance of life science degrees).  The museums that exist don’t tend to have many staff, there are rarely openings, and almost none of these places exist outside of major metropolitan areas or college towns.  So, it’s a small world, and can be hard to break into.  I already have my foot in the door, but there isn’t a lot of room for me, so to speak.

Enter the two-body problem (not this one, but this one).  My partner and figured out this summer that we can’t live apart long-term and be happy together, and so we need to find a location where we can both be doing something we enjoy.  He’s much more interested in research than I am — he looks at the effects of MIG (not this kind, but this kind) and integrated crop-livestock systems on soil chemistry — and the nature of it requires a rural setting or an agricultural university.  Alas alack and woe, rural settings and ag schools aren’t well-known for their physical science education opportunities, and I don’t have any interest in public school teaching in the long term (I’m not certified, for starters).  Sure, my leaving research makes this problem much easier than it was (rural settings and ag schools are definitely not known for their fundamental materials science research opportunities), but it’s still a challenge.  We have a fairly large spreadsheet devoted to interesting places we’d like to live and work, rated and ranked according to job prospects for both of us.

Or, at least, we did, until the partner got an absolutely incredible response to one of his cold-calls (cold-emails, in this case) to cool farms that do demonstration, education, and research.  It turns out a small nonprofit farm in GA is interested in working with him.  Extremely interested, it would seem.  They don’t have enough money to pay him anything, but they’re looking to start a small beef operation run with the grazing principles he researches, and running the numbers, it seems that there’s enough land to make a modest living from it.  Long-term, they’re looking for someone to develop the farm’s production as a whole, since it currently operates on a very small demonstration-only scale, and very little (if any) of their produce actually goes to market.  Building the production side of the farm could be a huge help eventually for supporting their education efforts.

This is still somewhat of an unreal thing for us, especially because we desperately want to settle in the southeast for the long term.  Nothing is set in stone, but they’re interested enough to have us visit soon, and the partner’s been engaged in detailed discussions with the farm owner and the farm’s business manager.  From everything we can tell, it sounds like a real offer, and doesn’t seem to be a position being posted around and advertised.  I’m interpreting it as a case of “you’re interested, we’re interested, let’s find out if the fit is right.”  All from a cold-call email that only asked to join a mailing list or stay in touch!  I helped write that email, and am feeling a bit proud of my advice.

What does this mean for me?  Well, a stable paycheck and decent salary would be invaluable, is the first thing.  The problem is that the town isn’t really a hub for what I want to do, and Atlanta is too far away to make it a reasonable commuting option (not to mention:  commuting?  Atlanta?  are you PSYCHO?).  Poverty for the next few years is a very likely thing, but it’ll be poverty with access to food at least.  Luckily, I have a really nice stipend right now, the partner certainly gets a living wage from his research stipend, so it’s savings time.  We also don’t require much to live on, especially now that my healthcare costs are lower (I’m slightly healthier than I have been in recent years).

The most appealing option I’m pursuing at the moment is to create my own job.  In a way, I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while, just maybe not undertaking it so very much from scratch as I’m doing now.  Though I love “traditional” informal science ed, with an MS degree and experience both as a researcher and a public educator, I’ll be much better placed to work on bridging the gap between current science and the public than to simply teach kids about planets.  This has been a growing focus in informal science education for the last several years, so I’m not going too far out on a limb here.  I also met a ton of lovely folks at the MRS meeting back in November who are all involved with NISE Net (the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network), and their focus is on developing resources for researchers to get the word out about what they’re doing and why it matters.   I’m hopeful that they’ll be a huge help to me down the road.  My current vision is to start building an outreach program affiliated with a research center at the local university, but I’ve yet to figure out how receptive they are to doing that (waiting to get a response to my initial email).  If all goes well, I could eke out a grant-funded living and help increase their funding in the short and long term by providing a clear vehicle for the research to get out of the lab.  Oh yeah, and be doing what I love to do.

I’m also applying to an amazing fellowship at the moment: the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship.  This is a summer program (10 weeks) that places science students and recent graduates in science newsrooms, aiming to teach scientists to communicate and journalists some science.  It’s extremely competitive, but I think I’m a solid candidate.  We’ll see how it goes.

So, to wrap up, it’s all pie-in-the-sky out here right now on the Front Range, and the partner and I are full of plans.  We both have a lot of concerns and doubts and worries, too — and oh yeah, both have to defend master’s theses this spring — but dreaming about the future is a ton of fun.

P.S.  We’re also plannin’ a weddin’!  So far we have a partial wine selection, an officiant, a maid of honor, and probably a best  (wo)man, but no date.  The important things, you see.

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