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Life After the Lab
Ex-Postdocs Thrive on Switch to Teaching

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

It might be a good thing that Lipsett Amphitheater was not that crowded for a talk given May 11 by two ex-NIH postdocs who have gone on to new careers in teaching; after all, they seemed more engaged, more vitalized, a tad more riddled with life than perhaps the average young NIH scientist, especially the beleaguered postdoc caricatured in those NIH Catalyst cartoons drawn by Dent.


The Dent guy is hollow-eyed, doubt-ridden and despairing of his career choice. Drs. Susan Gagnon and Christine Hrycyna — the speakers at "Scientific Careers in the New Millennium – Teaching," a seminar for fellows given by the Office of Education, ORWH and the fellows committee — were the anti-Dent: enthusiastic, warm, funny and delighted with the outcome of nervy forays outside the gilded cage of NIH science careers.

Former NIH postdocs Dr. Susan Gagnon (l) and Dr. Christine Hrycyna spoke about their new careers recently in Lipsett Amphitheater.

While Hrycyna opted to teach at the university level — she is just finishing her first year as an assistant professor at Purdue University — Gagnon and a fellow ex-NINDS postdoc, Dr. Suzanne Dashiell, took advantage of a special partnership between NIH and the Montgomery County Public Schools to make the career switch. They are participants in an intensive program called Training Teachers for Tomorrow, which is designed to recruit potential first-class pedagogues; it bypasses the traditional route of requiring a state teaching certificate before allowing newcomers to face pupils. The rookie teachers commit to teaching for 3 years, agree to take in-service courses leading to professional certification within 2 years, pay no tuition and earn a full salary with all benefits. NIH agrees to hire back the individuals to their labs of origin during the summer, and the county throws in extra support for the newbies, including mentors.

The program answers a growing national need, identified by the National Research Council, for science and math teachers. It began last fall and, according to NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman, is attracting more and more NIH postdocs. "About a half dozen (current NIH postdocs) are interested in the program, and we've taken them on tours," confirms Sandra Shmookler, an official with Montgomery County Public Schools. Those expressing interest in the program can get time off from work to visit county schools where they are welcome to shadow teachers, visit classrooms and see if the teaching life suits them.

Gagnon, who teaches science at Montgomery Blair High School, has a personality that makes the switch seem appropriate; she regaled the Lipsett audience with such tales as scrapping a lesson plan on Bohr's Law in favor of discussing menstrual cramps, breaking up the occasional fight, owning up to who does her eyebrows, and dealing with students who are homeless.

"Some of the kids who go to Blair are extremely underprivileged," she recounted. "We take so much for granted in the largely affluent atmosphere at NIH."

Although she admits that teaching is "sometimes like babysitting" with classroom deportment "verging on anarchy occasionally," she insists, "There are a lot more positives than negatives — I wouldn't be (teaching) if there weren't. Teaching is challenging on many levels; had I stayed in research, I would never have grown in this way...I am very busy, and haven't missed research for a second. You can put 24 hours a day into this if you want to."

Teaching can be "damned funny," she added. "The kids are into all of this posturing and being tough, but it's really very funny. I feel like I'm making a difference in their lives; there's so much crap that they're dealing with all the time."

Her first semester was rough, she concedes, and she almost didn't go back. "I changed my expectations, and got to know the kids. That connection is what is essential. Now things are going very well. It's actually fun — it's good."

Gagnon came to NIH in July 1998 and spent 2 years in the molecular immunology section of NINDS' Neuroimmunology Branch. "I loved it at NIH," she says. "I just knew that I would not stay in research forever, for several reasons. For one thing, it's pretty tough to find a job and once you do you spend most of your time stressing out and writing grants. I have no desire to do that. Also, I think my personality is better suited to teaching...Science is great, but there is a whole other world out there that I know nothing about, and that's equally — if not more — interesting to me right now."

She found out about the county-NIH partnership via email from a colleague, who alerted her to a meeting about Training Teachers for Tomorrow (TTT) on campus. "I went to the meeting, it sounded like a great opportunity, so I applied."

Gagnon intends to teach for at least a few more years, but is leaving the door to the long-term open. Though she is back in her old lab for the summer, she doesn't rule out the possibility of another career switch. "If I am presented with another education-related position, I may look into it."

Dr. Suzanne Dashiell, whose doctorate is in medical pathology, left NINDS' Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology after 2 years (though she is still a special volunteer here and will work in her old lab this summer) to become a science teacher. She's now at Forest Oak Middle School in Gaithersburg, where she teaches five periods daily to eighth graders.

"Since I am a people person, I was not completely happy being in a lab all day and not interacting with a lot of people," she said. "Although I really enjoy the lab bench, I felt like I needed a career where I could express my humorous and youthful personality. More importantly," she continued, "I wanted a job where I would feel like I was making a difference in people's lives on a daily basis. Research can be rewarding, but the rewards are delayed...Teaching kids is perfect if you want to make an immediate difference...Nothing gives me greater joy than a student who appreciates what I do."

Like Gagnon, Dashiell sees her share of knuckleheadedness, and warns that ill-prepared teachers can be "eaten alive." The two women have high expectations of their students, though, which tends to lift ambitions in the classroom. "I found if you respect and be kind to the kids, they will be respectful and kind back to you," Dashiell said.

She learned about the TTT program from the county's advertisements, Dashiell said, and from television stories about it.

Both Dashiell and Gagnon say their career changes provoked mixed reactions from family and peers. "The people in my lab reacted well compared to my parents," laughed Gagnon. Said Dashiell, "Many people were shocked because I invested so much time and effort in getting a Ph.D. and then switched to a career where a Ph.D. is not needed. Some were disappointed because being a scientist at NIH was impressive and highly revered, and to go to a profession that has somewhat lost its respectability and appeal was a bitter pill for some of my family and friends to swallow." But peers had always told her she'd make a good teacher, and Dashiell listened. She says she remains committed to teaching, "but it is possible I will pursue other options like teaching different grade levels."

Going the older-kid route was Dr. Christine Hrycyna, who left NCI a year ago after 6 years of research in the Laboratory of Cell Biology headed by her advisor Dr. Michael Gottesman. A biochemist by training, she spent a year methodically choosing a new career as an educator, finally landing at Purdue's department of chemistry. Now responsible for virtually everything about her new lab, she says, "It's like running a small business. You have to be a jack of all trades...It's not like anything I could have expected — I thought I'd have more time to do experiments myself. But the other duties are also fun."

She has the usual round of committee responsibilities, office hours to maintain, grants to write, grad students to recruit, train and mentor, and lab equipment to buy (the federal surplus program has outfitted her with some excellent ex-NIH equipment, she noted) but finds life in West Lafayette, Ind., refreshing with its affordable housing, comfortable university-town culture and world-class sushi: "There's a Subaru and Isuzu plant in town, and a local Japanese restaurant flies in fresh sushi daily."

Hrycyna says teaching undergraduates "is incredibly rewarding. It's hard to express how much I enjoy it. They want to be engaged, and to have their interest sparked."

Shmookler of MCPS cherishes the close relationship the schools have established with NIH: "We love NIH," she said. "We're delighted with this partnership. We always want the best and brightest minds in our classrooms — after all, they whet the appetites of the next generation of science students, too."

She is willing to do most anything to satisfy the curiosity of a would-be teacher. "We can let interested people do some substitute teaching, or spend a week in the classroom to see what it's like. We try to make it as easy as possible...Teaching is hard. Most of the kids are wonderful, but it can be a challenge. We want people to see how it really is (before they make the switch)."

To learn more about the TTT program in Montgomery County, call Mary Grace Snyder at (301) 972-5792. Postdocs interested in testing the waters with a visit to county schools should contact Gloria Seelman (who has more than 30 years of classroom experience, and used to run the magnet program at Blair, Shmookler said) in the Office of Education, 402-2469.

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