Thursday, November 15, 2012

Faces of Science: Finding Life's Passion in Unexpected Places

  This is the fifth of a series of blogs about women in science at the University of Wyoming, as we initiate our new NSF-funded program.Throughout the year we will be blogging about women in engineering, earth sciences, biological sciences and beyond. 
Rachel with students shortly after winning the Ellbogen teaching award in 2011
Rachel Watson graduated with top honors from the University of Denver, receiving the Best Chemistry Undergraduate award. She had spent years working in a lab, gaining invaluable experience as a researcher studying metalloenzymes (proteins that function as enzymes) using electron paramagnetic resonance. She could have been accepted into almost any graduate school she wanted. The path towards becoming a bench top scientist lay before her feet, but she turned away from this opportunity and hasn’t looked back. 
“I was terrified of a life like that,” Rachel says, reflecting on the principal investigators of the lab she worked in during her undergraduate years. “Maybe partly because I couldn’t find my own personal passion in the kind of work the PIs were doing.”
Rachel found her passion while in graduate school at the University of Wyoming. Two years into her PhD, she started working with the Upward Bound and Math-Science Initiative programs in the summer, and her life took an unexpected turn.
“I had no thought that I would ever want to be a teacher until I stepped into that classroom in the summer and fell in love with it,” Rachel says. “I just knew that I would spend the rest of my life as a teacher and that I would never step out of a classroom, no matter what I was teaching.”
Rachel finished her master’s degree, but rather than continue towards her PhD, she began teaching anything and everything she could. Today, Rachel is an Academic Professional Lecturer in Molecular Biology at UW where she teaches, works on research about education and co-coaches the UW Nordic ski team.
Since her undergraduate years, Rachel has thought and written a lot about women in science and why many women do not stay in these fields. It’s one of her passions and something she carries with her in her work with students.
“There has been a lot of writing about why women don’t stay in science and I think a lot of it misses the boat,” Watson says.
The biggest problem Rachel sees is the way that science as an institution and a process, work. Both try to be incredibly objective and in doing so, the human aspect and emotional aspect of science are removed. Women, in general, need these aspects, because they look for the ways that they are impacting people’s lives; they look for the overall meaning their work has for society.
“That kind of disengagement of the human aspect from the science is really unfulfilling,” Rachel says.
In her classes, Rachel works to provide this type of engagement.
“One of the biggest parts of my job is turning people on to science, but also at the same time letting them know that there is many more than one way to be a scientist,” Watson says. “Students need to see how what they do matters in the world. If I can relate what each student loves already to microbiology then I can show them that it actually matters in their lives.”
At the University Games in Erszerum, Turkey in 2011
Athletes on the Nordic team regularly experience how science impacts their passion for skiing as Rachel talks with them about metabolism, physical activity and intellectual capacity. Science helps to explain the relationship between metabolism and physical activity, but it also shows that physical activity supports intellectual capacity to form a positive relationship.
“The two are a beautiful synergy really,” Watson says. “For me, I’m able to work out every day with no guilt about leaving my job because I’m not really leaving it. It’s all just a part of my job and I stay fit and happy too. I think that makes me a better teacher.”
On the wall in her office, Rachel has a collage of thank you cards. It’s her most prized possession and speaks to her dedication to her students.
“That is what gets me up in the morning,” Rachel says. “The students are unquestionably the best part of my job. They inspire me every day.”
At the beginning of her career, Watson was unsure of where her passions stood. Today, there is no doubt about what inspires her and energizes her. Her passions and dedication are clear in everything she does. She keeps her classrooms learner centered, to support and encourage the scientists of tomorrow.
“Always put that which matters most at the heart of all you do. There are many ways to achieve the synergy of passion and career,” Rachel advises all students.  

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of Rachel Watson

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