PNAS: Ethan Allen, Education Program Manager

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Ethan Allen, a program manager.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I manage education and outreach (terrible term, hate it) for two different Centers here at UW the Center for Nanotechnology and the Genetically Engineered Materials Science and Engineering Center. In these similar roles I design, develop, implement, assess, and report on a broad range of education programs and activities for multiple audiences: K-12 students and teachers, general public, undergrads, and doctoral students.

2) What is your science background?

have a PhD in systems & integrative biology, with my focus having been neuroscience and animal behavior.

3) What led you to this job?

Weird, random chance. After doing my doctoral work and two post-docs, and having been involved in developing an exhibit for the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, I found myself drawn to informal science education and so went to work for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. From there, I then moved into K-12 science education improvement, working to renew and advance science in Chicago’s elementary schools. After this, I continued the K-12 science education improvement work out in Seattle, working on several of the NSF Local Systemic Change projects. When NSF killed that program, I came back to the UW, where I had done some of this work earlier, and signed on with the CNT, later picking up the additional work for GEMSEC.

4) What’s your work environment like?

Office-based, but with some interactions with labs. We have a Nanotech User Facility associated with our CNT

5) What do you do in a typical day?

A mix of activities typically fills my day. Often there is considerable writing – reports, grant proposals, educational modules, etc. – and usually some interactions with one or more of the various audience groups that I serve.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

The scientific habits of mind are very useful in designing programs. And having a background in learning and neuroscience is highly applicable to education work.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

There is just now a burgeoning recognition of the role of educator affiliated with research center as a profession. We have little in the way of formal organizations or resources, though groups like the National Research Centers Educators Network (NRCEN) exist, and Neo-Sphere is a useful resource.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

Patience and persistence are key qualities in success.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Get involved in education activities (“outreach”) early on and in as many different ways as possible. Volunteer at your local museum or science center. Network, network, network.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

Not too bad – moderate university level. Note that most museums and science centers pay very poorly.