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The Scientists of the Future – June 24

The Scientists of the Future

Where would we be without scientists? There is no question that scientists play a critically important role in our society. So it may be a bit concerning that the flow of newcomers to the environmental science field may be a bit sluggish. According to demographic data from Zippia, the average age of people currently in the industry (as Environmental Consultants and Environmental Chemists) is around 40 years old, with more than 50% being age 42 or older. Many of those will be on the road to retirement in the next few years. With this in mind, there is a significant need to encourage young professionals to pursue careers in those areas and gain knowledge from those seasoned professionals prior to them retiring.

According to statistics published by the National Science Foundation, students graduating with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees have continued to rise over the past two decades. In spite of that, many areas of the environmental industry appear to struggle to attract young professionals and/or retain them over the course of their careers. However, there are some great reasons to consider environmental careers including entry-level positions typically only require a bachelor’s degree and some companies will pay for additional education; job security since many of the tasks cannot be completed through artificial intelligence (AI); potential for career growth into higher positions; and working in a community of individuals with the goal of protecting the health of people and the environment.

Thankfully, some colleges and universities have become more aware of the need to educate the students about the variety of career options after graduating, and they have been making an effort to do that. For example, many schools have created programs that allow current students to converse with alumni to gain a better understanding of the careers and pathways available to them beyond graduation. In addition, some professors have started to update their course material to adopt a workforce mindset, since many college courses are taught with an academic and research influence.

Many companies and organizations have also realized the importance of targeting the younger professionals. For example, the Society of Women Environmental Professionals of the Greater Philadelphia (SWEP GP) has developed initiatives for outreach to students seeking education in environmental science and related disciplines. By providing this outreach through visitations and conversations, students have the opportunity to start networking with professionals in the environmental industry, which could attract more younger professionals to pursue a career in the industry.

Half the battle appears to be students having the knowledge of the industry and the connections to begin navigating post-graduation. So, by being proactive and providing these initial conversations, the environmental professionals of today could be the jumpstart needed to increase future interest in environmental careers.

Will Getting a Pen Pal Help?

The Standard reached out to Dr. Jessie Christiansen, Chief Scientist at NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute, to discuss her thoughts on the scientists of the future and how she encourages young people to pursue careers in STEM through a pen pal program, Letters to a Pre-Scientist (LPS).

Dr. Christiansen told The Standard a little bit about her own path to a STEM career. “As a high school student, I fell in love with the sky, although at the time I had no idea that astronomy was a real job that real people got paid real money to do.” She initially majored in physics and math, but after taking advantage of several opportunities to observe researchers, she decided to get her PhD in Astronomy.

“I know it’s a cliche, but sometimes I want to pinch myself, it’s a dream come true – I have the best job in the world! Said Dr. Christiansen. “I especially have enjoyed transitioning from academia to NASA – I have a much better work-life balance, I get to work with incredibly motivated and skilled teams, and we get to achieve some amazing things together. I enjoy the feeling of discovery when we come up with a new idea to explain something, or when we confirm that something we only speculated was true. I also enjoy being in a community-facing role, and supporting early-career scientists make their own way in the field.”

She wanted to encourage young people in STEM, so she got involved with LPS in 2018. LPS pairs middle school students with a worldwide network of STEM professionals for a yearlong pen pal program during science class. “By exchanging letters where the scientist and the students learn about each other’s lives, interests, pets, etc., scientists can tell stories about their career pathways, their struggles and triumphs, their discoveries and missteps – the whole lived science experience. The students can engage one-on-one with their pen pals, asking questions, exploring ideas, and building trust and connection with the idea of scientists as real people.” 

“I had one student who started the year very uninterested in science (the students self-report their interest in science before being matched, so the scientist knows what they’re getting in to).” Said Dr. Christiansen. “By the end of the year, he was asking questions about things that interested him and excited by the answers (and inspired to think of more questions!). From my own experience, I know that curiosity is one of the most basic skills a scientist needs. It was great to see that development in his interest levels over the year.”

LPS helps students to see what life as a scientist is like. “Kids get so little exposure to scientists at the cutting edge of research, solving hard problems and answering hard questions. They don’t get to see what science really looks like – that it’s not a straight line from question to answer, but instead from question to strategy to wrong answer to updated strategy to less wrong answer, and so on. They don’t see the grit and resilience and ultimately the reward of science.” Said Dr. Christiansen. “Any paths for connecting kids with authentic scientists, like Letters to a Pre-Scientist, will repay the efforts of the scientists many times over.” 

What Does a Scientist Look Like?

“We make the most progress, with the best ideas, when we have a wide, diverse set of voices and perspectives and backgrounds at the table. I think it’s incredibly important to encourage students to consider STEM pathways. Science literacy is vital tool for society and even democracy, so having STEM-related education is valuable for a multitude of reasons, not just that it might lead to a STEM career.” Dr. Christian continued, “But for the latter, I think there is still a lot of traditional baggage about ‘what a scientist looks like’ that we are trying to shed, too slowly, and it’s so crucial that we demonstrate that scientists look like everyone, and everyone looks like a scientist.”