Thursday, September 13, 2012

Research, teaching and outreach: A day in the shoes of an EPSCoR director

The following is part one of a two part story featuring EPSCoR director Anne Sylvester. These two stories are the first of several blogs about Wyoming EPSCoR and the University of Wyoming. This first story is the start of stories featuring EPSCoR personnel and their roles in merging science, education, research and outreach. Next week’s story will start off a series of blogs about women in science at the University of Wyoming, as we initiate our new NSF-funded program. 

Dr. Sylvester researches maize genetics
Most people probably don’t see the connection between corn genetics, classroom instruction and outreach projects, but Dr. Anne Sylvester does. For her, research, outreach and education have always gone hand in hand, and corn genetics is her area of expertise.
“For some of us, research is critical to our teaching,” Dr. Sylvester says. “For me, research and teaching are highly intertwined.”
As a professor at the University of Wyoming, she has the opportunity to both research and teach. As the director of Wyoming EPSCoR, she has the ability to ensure that the science fields at UW are reaching out to the public, from elementary school all the way up.
“I have a deep seated commitment to promoting science and moving it into the public sector, to explaining what science is all about at all levels, and to drawing students into the science fields,” Dr. Sylvester says.
The key to doing this lies not only in the commitment to reaching out, but also in the excitement scientists as individuals have for their research and field. Dr. Sylvester found this excitement following graduate school, in the fields of molecular biology and genetics. She has always been interested in plants, but it was genetics that allowed her to begin answering the research questions that inspired her to become a scientist.
 “I became particularly interested in and moved towards maize or corn genetics after graduate school, when I was looking into a post-doctoral program,” she says. “I wanted to work with a genetics system because I felt that it would allow me to really investigate the molecular biology behind the questions I was interested in.”
Today, Dr. Sylvester’s passions for genetics carry over to all aspects of her work at UW. Her passions for her research turn into her passions as an instructor.
Dr. Sylvester has corn fields in Colorado and Hawaii
“I love teaching,” Dr. Sylvester says. “The most rewarding aspect of teaching is thinking of ways to teach something that will convey your own interests, your own excitements and your own passions for science, and bring out those same emotions in your students.”
Dr. Sylvester sees inspiring her students in science as an essential part of her role as an instructor. “Teaching is a mission. It’s a mission to bring information about science to students who are going to help change the world,” she says. “Students need to get excited by science so that they can learn it.”
Dr. Sylvester’s personal philosophy regarding her classrooms and her labs caught the attention of Bill Gern, Vice President of the Research and Economic Development Office at UW. In 2006, he asked her to become the associate director of EPSCoR, which eventually led her to become the director.
“On my own NSF funding, I have always worked with Native American students through a tribal college in Montana,” Dr. Sylvester says. The outreach and diversity Dr. Sylvester cultivated in her labs fits with UW-wide efforts to build strong programs in Wyoming.  Today, EPSCoR joins others at UW who work with tribal colleges, community colleges and high schools throughout Wyoming in order to encourage students at these schools to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.
“I’ve watched EPSCoR transform individuals who have recognized that science is no longer individuals forging their own path,” Dr. Sylvester says. “Now science is highly collaborative, interdisciplinary and integrated with education, and that’s the goal of EPSCoR in my opinion.”
Being a professor, researcher and director simultaneously has its challenges, but the work never ceases to interest, excite and engage her.
“Being involved in what I see as absolutely cutting-edge science is my favorite part of being the director of EPSCoR,” Dr. Sylvester says. “I love my job. I think that an academic career is the best there is because of the fact that an academic environment promotes constant learning and education.”

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of the University of Wyoming

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