Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How did I get here?

I often start my story about how I ended up in my current job with the caveat that my path is not typical. But I hear that a lot, so maybe everybody's path is atypical! It took me awhile to figure out what I really wanted to do, but looking back on my childhood, I can recall enjoying math and science (though there were other things I enjoyed as well).
All the way back to preschool/kindergarten, I went to a Montessori school and I remember playing with one of my favorite "works" (as they're called in Montessori) called The Golden Beads. (Now, I don't remember that name from way back, I am blessed to have a Montessori school here that my child attends, and I got to rediscover all of the Montessori works!) The Golden Beads consist of single beads that are the ones, a bar of 10 beads, a square of 100 beads, and a cube of 1000 beads. It is a very sensory-based way to learn and understand our base-10 number system. This is an example of why Montessori education is so awesome: you learn everything through sensory activities! When I visited the school here, I saw two related works, the binomial and trinomial squares that help to visualize several math concepts. I had totally forgotten about them, but it was like having flashbacks when I saw them! If you've ever seen the TV series, Alias with Jennifer Garner, you'll understand when my husband and I joked that my Montessori education was like the spy school.
Throughout elementary school, I remember doing cool science stuff, including rat mazes and shark dissection and a summer science "camp." In high school, I was selected for an accelerated math program, taking pre-calculus during the summer, AP Calculus in junior year, and Multivariable Calculus in senior year. I had an AWESOME teacher, Mrs. Irwin. One favorite memory of her class was when she brought in Pringles to teach us about saddle points! I knew then that I wanted to major in math, and I was thinking that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I got the chance to help in a vet clinic and almost passed out during a very bloody spaying surgery. I'm not sure if that totally killed my interest in being a vet, but that was definitely a factor. I took physics as a senior in high school, which I enjoyed somewhat, but the teacher was definitely not as enthusiastic. She kept saying "you all are so much smarter than me," which was not a good thing to say to a bunch of high school students!
So my great math experience inspired me to major in math at college. I had a number of great professors and I did an Honors project in mathematics. I also minored in music, playing the cello. While I loved taking math classes, I didn't really know what to DO with math. I was really interested in astronomy and space physics (the Mars Rovers were a big deal!) so I started trying to take as many physics classes as I could fit into my schedule. During the summer after my junior year, I did a Research Experience for Undergraduates in Solar Physics in Tucson (where I had spent a good amount of my childhood so I was excited to go back). There was a big learning curve-I had to learn UNIX, C, and IDL along with some solar physics to be able to do a research project in just a couple of months. But it was great. I hung out with all of the other REUs, mostly doing astronomy. We did some observing on Kitt Peak and visited the National Solar Observatory, Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and Very Large Array in New Mexico.
I applied to several astronomy graduate programs, and was accepted to UVA. But then I decided to get married, my husband to be was 2 years ahead of me and already in medical school. UVA said they would keep my application supporting documents for 2 years, so I could easily reapply. Since I needed to catch up on physics courses anyway, I figured I'd take some physics courses and then we would move to UVA together. I was accepted into the physics graduate program where my husband was, eventually joined a research group in plasma physics, and what was my first research project? Space physics! (using the IDL that I had learned during my REU!) So we never went to UVA, we stuck around. I did my dissertation work in laboratory plasma physics.
My husband finished his residency 1 year before I finished my PhD, so he got a job in the area-that included a 3 year requirement to stay in the area. Plus, I wanted to start a family when I finished. Luckily, my phd adviser had funding for a half-time postdoc doing space physics, so that's what I did. Eventually, I wrote a proposal that was funded, providing me a promotion to a research professor. And that's where I am!

Since this blog is about my work and the other parts of my life, I'll throw in some tidbits about non-work here too. Today my second kid is the age that my first kid was when the second was born. They grow up so fast!
For dinner, it's been so nice we decided to use the grill. We had tuna steaks and they were yummy! We'll have to do that again. And last night we had some strawberries, cut up, lightly sugared, on top of vanilla ice cream. Such a simple dessert, but one of my favorites.

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