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Andy Sessler: The Making of a Scientist

By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Specialist, Society for Science & the Public

Andy Sessler, Science Talent Search 1945 alumnus and award-winning theoretical physicist and humanitarian activist, has served as the director of Berkeley Lab, the President of the American Physics Association, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has also shared his knowledge by giving presentations all over the world, publishing multiple academic papers, serving on many national committees, and co-writing a coffee table book on particle accelerators: Engines of Discovery: A Century of Particle Accelerators.

Andy says he had a lot of help along the way as he relied on his parents, teachers, and other members of the community to become a scientist. “It takes a village,” to raise a scientist, he says. His dad was a science teacher who let Andy use his equipment and share it with elementary school classmates. Andy also had some great public school teachers, including one, in the 5th grade, who gave him assignments in Morse code and allowed him and his friends to give fake science “broadcasts” out of a cardboard radio during class.

Perhaps just as important as having a supportive community, is having the will to persevere when the support isn’t there. When Andy’s teacher refused to teach calculus, he and a friend tried to learn it themselves. “Kids have to learn how to think for themselves,” he says. He remembers later working with graduate students who had stellar grades but were terrible at research. “They were great at answering questions…but [they had an] inability even to think what would be the next question we should ask, or what about this, just no imagination or creativity.” 

Andy says hands-on research is a good way to teach this independent creative thinking, as well as allowing students to explore their own passions.  He recalls a time his daughter wanted to do a project on tectonic plates for a biology class and he was surprised the teacher allowed an earth sciences project in a biology course.  But, he says, the teacher was more generous and wiser than he was, because that project lead his daughter to study geology in graduate school.

 “The ability to ask questions, see what comes next, and overcome obstacles,” is required for being a good scientist, he says.  These skills must be developed, in addition to the knowledge gained. “It’s a long road to becoming a scientist.”

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