How to succeed: make mistakes and celebrate differences
The alumni panel
Rebecca Alford, a Ph.D. student in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University. She is an alumna of the 2012 Science Talent Search and 2011 and 2012 International Science and Engineering Fair.
Jennifer Barrett, the Theodora Ayer Randolph Professor of Equine Surgery at Virginia Tech. She is alumna of the 1987 Science Talent Search.
Grace Chung Becker, a Former Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. She is an alumna of the 1987 Science Talent Search.
Robert Beckman, a professor of Oncology and Biostatistics, Bioinformatics & Biomathematics at Georgetown University Medical Center and the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is an alum of the 1974 Science Talent Search.
David Bray, Chief Information Officer at the Federal Communications Commission. He is an alum of the 1996 Science Talent Search and 1993-1995 International Science and Engineering Fair.
Benjamin Frison, a transit engineer at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). He is an alum of the 2003-2005 International Science and Engineering Fair.
Sarah Mousa, a consultant of governance and education at the World Bank. She is an alumna of the 2006 Science Talent Search, 2005 and 2006 International Science and Engineering Fair, and 2002 Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge.
Sikandar Porter-Gill, a Structural Project Engineer at SK&A Structural Engineers. He is an alum of the 2009 Science Talent Search, 2006 and 2007 International Science and Engineering Fair, and 2003 Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge.
Todd Waldman, a professor of Oncology at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He is an alum of the 1987 Science Talent Search.
“The Society’s science fair was the first time I really thought of science as a possibility for my future,” said Rebecca Alford, a Ph.D. student in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University. “I’m legally blind, so throughout school my teachers weren’t thinking of what my future would be. They were really just thinking about how I would be able to get through school.”
“I was always very curious about the world, how things work at the molecular level, and what you can do to fix it. It was that implicit curiosity that led me into science,” she said.
Alford was one Society alumna who offered advice and described her path into science, along with eight other alumni, during the career panel for Broadcom MASTERS finalists on November 1.
The panelists had participated in one or more Society competitions, including the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge (DCYSC); the Science Talent Search, sponsored by Regeneron; and the International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF), sponsored by Intel.
“When they were your age, they too had a passion for STEM,” said Maya Ajmera, the President & CEO of the Society. “Later at the Awards Gala, you 30 finalists will become Society alumni too.”
After answering questions from Ajmera, the panelists broke into small groups with the finalists to describe their career paths.
Do make mistakes
Several alumni agreed that throughout their careers and scientific endeavors, they failed and made many mistakes. But “you learn by doing and making mistakes,” said Todd Waldman, a professor of oncology at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
“Doing science is fundamentally different from learning in a classroom,” he said. “It’s not about learning facts, but rather about playing.”
The first time transit engineer at WMATA Benjamin Frison learned to code, he made so many errors he had to restart his entire project. But that’s how he became a better coder.
The finalists too will make mistakes throughout science fair projects, research, and in labs, the alumni said. But engaging in science can still be a positive and fulfilling experience.
Waldman touted the social atmosphere of labs. “There were all of these conversations going on all the time about science, politics, and more,” he said. “And everyone was really smart. That was wonderful for me.”
People have to be flexible within their jobs, too. Sikandar Porter-Gill, a structural engineer, often has to change his architectural designs to add retail, integrate them into the Metro system, or for other reasons.
Don’t be afraid to change your career
Many panelists also explained that people don’t have to be stuck in one career; instead, they can continue to change their job. “I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” said Grace Chung Becker, a former Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice. “A part of me wondered if I should have pursued science instead. Now I’m spending my career in public service. You can never predict what’s going to happen.”
That’s certainly true for David Bray, Chief Information Officer at the Federal Communications Commission, one of the first people to explore the capabilities of computer science beyond mathematics. He was merging and creating new fields through his studies. Which “led to the government offering me a job when I was 15,” he said.
Frison also didn’t start in science. In school, he was more interested in history. But after participating in a history fair, he “learned that the science fair was much cooler.”
Through science fairs, the finalists are developing critical thinking skills applicable to many fields. “While many of you will be great scientists, you can also be great lawyers, journalists, policy makers, and more,” said Sarah Mousa, a consultant at the World Bank.
Robert Beckman, a professor of oncology and biostatistics, bioinformatics & biomathematics at Georgetown University Medical Center, warned against becoming addicted to approval. “Have some skepticism,” he said. “My career has been in three phases, and every time I go to a new thing I take my previous background with me. You don’t have to do the same thing throughout your whole career.”
Take advice with a grain of salt
As a kid, Mousa loved writing. But her middle and high school teachers kept explaining she wasn’t a great writer. They encouraged her to stick with science.
“Even though I’m still improving my writing, I’ve been a reporter for The New York Times,” she said. “So you should never let anyone label you or limit your aspirations.”
“Take advice with a grain of salt,” agreed Jennifer Barrett, a professor of equine surgery at Virginia Tech. “Any adult who’s telling you what they think you fit into has their own baggage they’re passing onto you.”
“Nowadays you can change your career and go in a different direction so much more easily than it used to be,” she said. “Enjoy what you’re doing, because we spend so much of our lives at work.”
Waldman explained that as he went through life, he asked for advice, listened respectfully, but then did what he wanted. “It’s useful for me to know different perspectives. But you have to do what you want,” he said.
Bray’s final piece of wisdom was encouraging the finalists to pursue their passions. “Seize as many opportunities as you can to do things differently. Celebrate being different, because that will be a strength in your life,” he said.