STEM Corner: Growing career paths through science

Students should not fret about being on a specific track.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“What are you doing after graduation?”

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Current and former students weather a steady stream of questions about their paths. For a change of pace, career “speed dating” events give students a chance to ask potential role models and mentors questions and engage in informal conversations.

BRIGHT (Broadening Research Interest in Geosciences, Habitat, and Technology) Girls, a University of Alaska Fairbanks project funded by the National Science Foundation, hosted STEM professional speed dating for local high school girls and women in STEM last September. The BRIGHT Girls students were intrigued and reassured by the STEM professionals’ often indirect paths — their answers to the above questions varied over the course of their careers. We interviewed two of the attendees, professors Sonia Nagorski and Susan Kendig, both in the Natural Sciences Department at the University of Alaska Southeast, about their paths through science in more depth.

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Neither professor knew she would be a scientist from an early age. Both grew up in major metropolitan cities with little exposure to the natural world, but recounted formative experiences outdoors that inspired interests that eventually grew into their current careers.

Nagorski grew up overseas due to her father’s job as a reporter. But when she spent a few months in a small town in coastal California, the view of the night sky ignited a new fascination with space. Still, without anyone in her family as a scientist and not having had any female science teachers or role models, she did not take seriously the possibility of going into science herself.

Growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs, Kendig loved camping and hiking with her family in the Sierra Nevada and San Gabriel Mountains, and the Mojave Desert. Getting into nature felt like going home and instilled in her a desire to help protect natural lands.

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Nagorski began college intending to pursue history and political science. In her first year, though, her interest in space, and her desire to study something entirely new, led her to take a geology class. The class piqued her interest enough to sign up for another, and then another. The associated hands-on experiences and field trips to mountains, beaches and rivers inspired a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for understanding how the physical world works, and eventually she declared a geology major. Immersive geology field experiences in Death Valley and Yellowstone National parks led her to apply to graduate school at the University of Montana — something she would not have predicted a few years prior. Encouragement from a female scientist was key to her decision. Nagorski’s faculty mentor, the only woman in the college’s geology department, showed great confidence in Sonia’s ability to pursue a geology doctor of philosophy (PhD).

Once Nagorski had that PhD, a faculty position was not a foregone conclusion. It took 10 years of working part-time and as a soft-money research professor while raising a family before landing her tenure-track faculty position. Looking back at it now, the path she took may appear linear and premeditated, but she emphasizes that while she was in it, it was not always easy to see what opportunities and challenges lay ahead.

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While Nagorski majored in history initially, Kendig began her college studies among the redwoods of University of California Santa Cruz majoring in psychology. When she noticed that a dreaded statistics course was her favorite, she realized that she had chosen the wrong major. She switched to chemistry, which came more naturally to her and would arm her with skills she could use to help clean up the world. Passionate about chemistry, teaching and Santa Cruz itself, Kendig remained there for her master’s degree (like Nagorski, with the encouragement of a female mentor; in her case, a teaching assistant) and for four years after as a teaching assistant herself. Several subsequent career paths — software developer, researcher in a molecular biology lab, backcountry ranger — were cut short by various economic downturns.

Kendig then returned to teaching, while pursuing a nursing degree. She worked as a nurse and adjunct instructor for several years, came to Juneau for a nursing job, then chanced upon her perfect job teaching chemistry at University of Alaska Southeast. Her nursing background proved an advantage — “that side track of mine was actually very beneficial” — as many of her students take chemistry in preparation for nursing studies. “I’m still on my meandering path,” she said, and “I love what I do right now. This is the perfect job for me.”

Looking to the future, both professors hope to build on their teaching and research experience at the University of Alaska and continue to provide educational and research opportunities for Alaska students. They encourage students to keep an open mind, take risks and explore math and science courses because these classes form the foundation for many interesting applications. They recommend pursuing “things that you like, that you find interesting, that you can make a living doing.” They urge students to build communication skills and to let go of limiting expectations. Students, they stress, should not fret about being on a specific track. As these two scientists’ paths illustrate, a vivid adventure or newly-discovered interest can nudge you in a different direction — that of your own meandering path.

STEM Activities

Connect with a community member in STEM through the Juneau STEM Coalition’s SouthEast Exchange: https://southeastexchange1.wixsite.com/southeastexchange.

Explore the many directions a career in the geosciences can take with the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Paths Through Science profiles at https://careers.agu.org/paths/.

Ask adults about their paths with questions like these, adapted from AGU: Are there any particular events — personal or public — that grabbed your attention and influenced your decision to choose your current role? What skills, both technical and interpersonal, have been critical to your success? How have your mentors and colleagues shaped your career path? What advice would you give to someone interested in attaining a position like yours? What is something you learned along the way but wish you had known from the start?

Ask students “what problems they want to solve” instead of “what they want to be when they grow up,” per the advice of Jaime Casap, the chief education evangelist at Google.

Find out more about the BRIGHT Girls project at http://brightgirlsak.org/.


• Gabrielle Vance is an educational designer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a geology instructor at University of Alaska Southeast. The subjects of this piece — UAS Chemistry Professor Susan Kendig and UAS Geology Professor Sonia Nagorski — contributed to writing and editing this column. STEM Corner is a monthly column about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in Juneau, written by a rotating group of Juneau STEM Coalition members.


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