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Career Spotlight: Carlyn Buckler


Museum Education & National Outreach


Basic job description:

To understand the Earth, and the life it contains, is to understand how geology, biology, physics, mathematics and chemistry all contribute to one dynamic system. Earth system science is the study of how all these disciplines illustrate the interdependency of soil, rock, planets, the sun, gravity, water, radiation, chemicals, and life itself. Unfortunately, public understanding of the Earth as a system is woefully lacking. I work in education and public outreach in informal (outside of formal school) earth science education. My goal is to facilitate an increase and improvement of earth system science education to the general public, teachers, and K-16 students through informal education venues (natural history museums, science centers, etc.). We have started a project that will create a national network where these venues can share ideas, exhibits, curriculum, and other resources. There is also a need to expand and improve relations between the research community and informal education venues; to connect current research, and the scientists who do this research, with local science centers and museums to provide role models and a more public face for science, researchers, and their institutions, thereby creating a broader impact and greater appreciation for science.

Type of Education/Training Required:

Fairly broad. At a recent Geoscience Education and Public Outreach meeting I met people with Ph.D.'s, M.A.'s and B.S.'s in Geology, Paleontology, Biology, Atmospheric Sciences, Education, Genetics, Administration, Oceanography, etc. One needs some science background.

Special Talents or Skills that Contribute to Career:

People skills are mandatory; good communication is key to making change happen. A determination to keep the vision in mind, and a good set of organizational skills are also a must. Aside from that, I think my sense of humor has gotten me through more tough times than almost anything! Salary: $35000 - $75000+, depending on educational background, experience, and how well funded your institution is.

What is your background?

I have a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and Genetics (i.e., I used to play with DNA all day long). I was an NSF and DOE funded researcher studying birth defects at Lawrence National Labs in California. Luckily, DNA is pretty much the same whether it’s in a monkey, bacteria or a corn plant, so when I got tired of doing research on things that screamed when you cut them, I turned to doing genetic research on plants. My studies included genetics, the domestication of crops, systematics, evolution, phylogenetics, as well as incorporating paleobotany, archeology, and even some atmospheric science (it helps to understand weather, if you’re going to study crops). During my university and research career, I also taught a number of undergraduate classes in biology, and mentored several undergrads in plant genetics.

Why did you choose this career?

Being a researcher is a fascinating and extremely creative career; I really loved it. When we moved to Ithaca, I was slated to start a post-doctoral research position at Cornell. But when our son approached school-age, I began to realize there was an incredible lack of awareness/knowledge of Earth system science – not only in schools, but for the general public. I decided that I needed to stop complaining about it and try to do something to change the situation.

What steps did you take to obtain your current position?

I found a great institution that had a similar vision, and it helped that this institution was attached to a great museum. When my husband, son and I first moved to Ithaca, NY, our son was 5, and we spent a great deal of time at the Museum of the Earth. It is a fabulous museum, and I realized what an incredible resource it – and others like it - is for the general public and school groups to come and learn about Earth system science. The Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) is the "parent organization" of the Museum of the Earth, and the folks there were very kind in letting me come and join them. I worked for a couple years as a volunteer, helping to write grants to fund educational outreach and helping with public and school programming. One grant I was particularly passionate about was a planning proposal to start a national network of museums and science centers, to help these institutions share their ideas, resources, and improve the educational outreach to the public and local schools. This grant was funded by the National Science Foundation, and that is how my job is now funded.

What suggestions do you have for others who would like to break into this field/profession?

Try it out, if you can. Be a volunteer at a museum or science center. Learn how educational outreach really works and feels for you, personally. At the PRI, one can volunteer to do research in paleontology; the PRI, as well as many other institutions, will train the public in preparing fossils and curation, take folks on digs, and help with education for the public. The most important thing is to be passionate about what you do – no matter what is it. If you’re passionate, it never gets old, and you never get bored.

What is involved in a typical workday?

There’s no real "typical" day. I teach students, go to meetings – both locally and nationally -, write grants, create programming, whatever is needed.

What do you like the best about your work? The least?

I love being with people, and I love science. Ignorance is the only enemy.

What are your career goals?

That is it; I'm doing it!

In what ways does your degree help you with this job?

To try to help improve Earth science education, and help bridge the gap between scientific research and the public, it is important that I’ve experienced the research side of the equation. Getting a Ph.D. is more than just obtaining expertise in a particular field. Getting your doctorate teaches you discipline and perseverance; it’s four to six years of your life, and when you’re finished you’ve achieved the highest academic pursuit available. I didn’t get a Ph.D. to go on and be a famous researcher; I got my doctorate to prove to myself that I could achieve that academic goal, and own that knowledge. Of course it helped that I also loved biology!

What are the opportunities for advancement in your career? Do people tend to stay in your field for a long time or is there a lot of turnover?

From my perspective, there seems to be a large number of folks who have been in this field for 7 years or more. The nice thing is, if you want to switch to just teaching, or just research, or spend all you time on the national level improving science programming, lateral movement with in the field is relatively easy. Advancement comes with experience and perseverance, but there’s plenty of opportunity.

How does your current position compare to working in other settings, like academia or industry?

I worked only briefly in an industry-setting, but have known a number of people who have liked working in industry. Personally, although I admit that it was great to have (almost) unlimited funds to do research, I did not like that fact that everything I did – both creatively and productively – was dictated by a financial bottom line and owned by a company. I would much rather have intellectual freedom, than loads of money.

June 2006


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