My dream job, part 1

As of August, I am an Assistant Professor of Biology at Reed College.  In this series of blog posts, I will explain why I chose this environment as my academic landing pad (or launching pad).

Part 1: I went to a liberal arts college, and it completely changed my career path.

This comment is not about Reed in particular, but about small liberal arts colleges.  I went to one of these colleges as an undergrad, determined to be an English major.  I took English classes, studied abroad in London with the English Department, and was well on my way to completing the required courses.

But something happened.  I was encouraged to try out new disciplines.  Like many other schools,* my alma mater offers an option to take a limited number classes pass/fail (“scrunch” them) and not have them count towards the students’ GPA.   So I took introductory courses in religion (didn’t like it), psychology (fun, but didn’t want to take more of it), and, finally, computer science.

I don’t know why I chose CS. Despite the small class size and the fantastic professor, I was intimidated.  After the first day I figured I would fail the class.  After a few weeks, I was hooked.  By that summer I was doing undergraduate research.  And now I have a Ph.D. in Computer Science.

Without the encouragement to use scrunch classes in a small class setting, I would not be a computer scientist.  I am surprised by my certainty about that statement.  I knew that I liked solving puzzles and finding creative solutions, but I didn’t connect that to computer science.  I hadn’t even connected that to science.

I am not necessarily on a mission to turn students towards computer science or computational fields.  Instead, I hope to show students a new field of study that they hadn’t considered before.  Students will be armed with new information to help them discover their academic interests.  I think this is will be easier to accomplish in a liberal arts environment.  Maybe this is unfair, since I didn’t attend a large school for undergrad, but it seems so easy to get “lost” at a large university if a student tries to venture out beyond their comfort zone.

*Some large public schools probably encourage this pass/fail option for select classes as well.  It would be interesting to know how many students use it as a mechanism to try out different career paths.


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