A Journey from Future Anthropologist to Science Communications Manager
I arrived at Hamilton without having ever set foot on the campus. As a student of modest means, I needed to go to the school that gave the most financial aid — and Hamilton beat out a lot of quality contenders who admitted me, but did not provide adequate support.
Early on I had hoped to pursue a combination of languages and research, but without quite knowing what shape that would take. As I explored different fields, I regularly took English and comparative literature courses for fun. I then discovered anthropology in my sophomore year. Finally, I had found a discipline that embraced quantitative and qualitative data, storytelling, art, and that nebulous thing we call culture. I ended up with two concentrations, anthropology and English (and that English degree had a strong focus on African and Afro-Caribbean literature and gave me a chance to use the Kiswahili I was learning, too).
Hamilton offered me incredible opportunities to experience elements of an academic life, whether doing research, writing, or preparing new courses and curricula. My summer research assistant work with different faculty was a delight to me (“I’m being paid to think and write!”) and drove me towards the pursuit of an academic career in anthropology.
I went directly to a Ph.D. program (UC Santa Barbara) after graduation, but decided about a year in that I was still very muddied about the direction I was headed. I left with a M.A. and moved across the country again, this time to North Carolina. After a year of work, I was an N.C. resident and more ready — I thought — to complete a Ph.D. program. I enrolled in the medical anthropology doctoral program at UNC-Chapel Hill. Again, my Hamilton education made graduate school work very manageable; however, I once again began to feel uncertain about choosing a very specific future as an academic. I loved research and teaching, but I was genuinely worried about actually being one of the few Ph.D.s to ultimately secure a quality tenure-track job in a place I could imagine living with my partner.
This was also a period in my life where in addition to being a full-time graduate student and part-time researcher or teaching assistant, I held many other jobs to support myself (graphic artist, editor, barista, etc.). Eventually, these positions accumulated to 30 different jobs for more than 6 months, by the age of 30!
After completing my Ph.D. coursework and in early stages of thesis work, I decided to leave the program and accept a staff position in a faculty development center at the same institution. I felt enormous relief when I made this decision. I had more financial security and opportunities to grow into new roles in course and curriculum development — all of which kept me connected to an invigorating breadth of academic activities and interesting scholar-teachers. Eventually, I shifted to university communications, which was an easy fit given my experience across different dimensions of the institution, and then later, after a household move, to research communications at a national laboratory.
I have a very atypical background for communications: many in the field are former journalists or have a marketing-communications background. The fact that I understand and respect the scientific research process and the complexities of “big science” makes it very easy for me to both dive deep into new innovation and discovery areas and emerge with plain language to outside audiences. Probably all of those earlier jobs also helped me learn how to be a good manager of people, projects, and financials. I genuinely enjoy learning about new developments in science and technology and appreciate that my current area includes fundamental physics plus applied technology for energy solutions.
I’m now manager of a small group of communicators for fusion and fission nuclear energy and science areas at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Our focus is delivering meaningful, accurate and compelling translations of our science and engineering activities to government, research, and industry stakeholders. On a normal day, I might write a speech, draft an editorial, work on a report, contribute to a video production, and plan new communications activities with colleagues around the world, in addition to supporting my staff’s success on their own projects. My scope includes the international ITER project, advanced fission reactor R&D activities, and fusion science and technologies.
The U.S. Department of Energy supports 17 national laboratories across the country. Some are multi-disciplinary labs, like Oak Ridge, while others have specialties such as particle physics or environmental research. The national lab system is an interesting place for a research career or for organizational roles in an R&D setting. The skills I developed at Hamilton and beyond are extremely relevant for the rapid-fire learning and communicating I now do every day. For today’s Hamilton students, there are amazing summer internship opportunities available at all of these laboratories, across diverse fields. I highly encourage students and alumni to investigate internships and careers in the labs.