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Science Teacher: Katie Morrison

Katie Morrison, Ph.D.
Katie Morrison, Ph.D. is a Science Specialist at the University Child Development School (a private pre-K–5 school) in Seattle, WA.

How did you choose your career? Was this an easy or hard process for you? If you struggled, how did you overcome these struggles?

It wasn't until graduate school that I realized I was most interested in K–12 education. I loved working in the lab throughout college and graduate school and was really focused on benchwork for many years. As a graduate student I became more and more involved with teaching and education but it wasn't until I was in my last year that I decided to make education my career focus. I realized that I didn't want these interests to be just "on the side" projects but the center of my professional focus. Talking with other science educators and scientists really helped me to articulate what it was I wanted to do.

What kind of training, both formal and informal, did you receive to prepare you for your career? If applicable, how did you select where to attend graduate school? How did you choose your postdoc? How about any additional training? How did you choose what additonal training to pursue and how did you choose where to do it?

I was an undergraduate at UNC–Chapel and did a lot of bench work there, all throughout college. Working in the lab made the concepts I was learning in class come to life. It also was nice to be part of a smaller group in such a large school. The summer before my senior year, I also did an internship in Seattle at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC). While I was there, I remember to talking to professors, postdocs, and graduate students at both UW and FHCRC about graduate schools — where they went, what they studied, what kinds of questions to ask. So my senior year when I applied to graduate programs, I felt like I had a lot of first-hand information about where to apply. I ended up coming back to Seattle for graduate school at the University of Washington. There were so many research opportunities in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program and I loved all of the mountains here. I did the research for my Ph.D. on the development of C. elegans (a tiny worm) in a lab at FHCRC.

A few years into graduate school, I met two high school biology teachers through the Science Education Partnership (SEP) at FHCRC. I helped them develop a genetics lab for their advanced biology classes. I also guest lectured in high school classrooms and substitute taught whenever I had the chance. It was these experiences that peaked my interest in K–12 education.

After graduate school, I did a science education postdoctoral fellowship in Seattle, helping to set up a research lab for high school students. This was a brand new project and it was really exciting to be part of it. I met many local teachers and learned a lot while developing my research program and working with the students. This was a great way to bridge my research experience and teaching interests.

How competitve and/or rigorous was the training for your career?

Being a graduate student is a lot of work. It was pretty consuming and I can remember spending a lot of time in the lab. My life revolved around those little worms! It was also great fun and really exciting to be part of such an amazing research team. I can remember thinking at times how decadent it was, that even though we were working all of the time, we could make our own schedule and that our time was our own. We could choose to spend the whole day reading in the library and learning about a new topic. Not many jobs would pay you to spend the day reading!

In general, how much did the training cost? Was the investment worth it?

I can't remember any of the numbers but I do remember that our tuition was paid for and we were also provided a stipend on which to live. It would have been hard to buy a house or make a major investment, but I remember being able to make ends meet.

How long did it take you to train? Was it shorter or longer than anticipated? If you had any setbacks, how did you deal with them?

I spent seven years in graduate school and then another year in my postdoc. I think I knew from the beginning it would be a long process, but I was definitely ready to be finished by that last year of graduate school. I think part of research is having setbacks and I certainly had my share. I can remember one time in particular that felt hard: After many months on a project, I came to a dead end. I was really frustrated and disappointed. I wasn't alone in that sentiment, so I had plenty of friends to commiserate with! In the end, I chose a related but different aspect and spent a couple of years collecting data around that problem.

What was the process like to apply for your first job after your training was over? Was it easy or difficult? How did you cope with any difficulties? Did that differ from subsequent jobs you've had?

Applying for jobs required sending out my resume and writing about my teaching philosophy. Again, the people around were a great resource for me, providing feedback and advice on my applications.

What advice would you give to someone interested in following a similar career path?

In thinking about my career path, the biggest influences were from the mentors and colleagues around me. Conversations with scientists, teachers, and science educators all made huge contributions in guiding my career path. I would also highly recommend going to graduate school in science. I think having all of those years of experience as a bench scientist is a big part of what makes me able to teach science in that way to children. To balance the bench work, I recommend making connections with local science teachers and K–12 schools. Getting into the classroom and having that teaching experience helped me realize that teaching science was where my interests lay. It was also those connections that helped me to get my first (and still current!) job as a science teacher.

How much do you like what you do? Why? Is it what you imagined it would be? If not, how have you adapted?

I love my job! The curiosity and excitement of the students is contagious. They often have a fresh perspective on problems and are able to ask questions I might never have thought to ask. They generate a lot of data in the science lab. I love all that data! One student's data combined with another's and then the whole class's and soon you have a hundred trials to support your hypothesis. A former colleague from my days as a bench scientist asked me recently, "Don't you miss doing research?" The truth is I don't feel like I ever left the bench; now doing science with students inspires me. Each day I wonder, "What will we discover next?"

How do you achieve career-life balance? Is this easy or hard to do? How many hours do you typically work per week?

Having two young children helps me keep my life in balance. My days are full with teaching classes, planning curriculum, and participating in school meetings. While I have some specific reading or work most evenings, I am also always thinking about, and on the lookout for, interesting ideas, opportunities and investigations. I probably work about 50 hours a week, but being a teacher comes with some great vacation time so I can't complain!

What strategies have you figured out over time to help you succeed?

Collaboration is central to my school's culture. I spend a lot of time discussing ideas and planning curriculum with my colleagues. I think my ideas for an investigation get so much better when I get the input and energy of my peers. I also depend on outside resources for planning experiments: local scientists and experts, museums, and field trip opportunities all provide information and perspective on the topics we are studying in the science lab. I've never had someone turn down an opportunity to help me plan an experiment or come and talk with my students!

How do you see your field changing in the next 5–10 years?

It is an exciting time in the field of science education. Teaching "scientific practice" is becoming more and more central to the field, as is teaching topics in depth. This is illustrated in the new framework by the National Research Council's (NRC) Board on Science Education (BOSE) coming out this fall to guide standards in K–12 science education. I also think that the importance of integrating science across other academic disciplines will become a central theme in science education.

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