I grew up in rural Washington state. My family was poor, and we lived in a tent (no joke) with no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing. One of the reasons my parents made so little money was because they dropped out of high school and only earned GEDs. They saw the value of education and always encouraged my brother and me to make education a top priority.

Personal Information

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NAME

Heather

JOB TITLE

Associate Researcher (Outlier Research & Evaluation)

LOCATION

Chicago, Illinois

SALARY

Undisclosed

NUMBER OF YEARS IN THE FIELD

2+

COMPANY

Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education at the University of Chicago

Career Bio

The profession

We study math, science, and computer science education. The foundation of our work is an implementation perspective, which means that we study what people actually do in the classroom and compare it to what the curriculum or program outlines for teachers to do. For example, if you were to give the same math lesson to 10 different teachers, they will each teach the same thing differently. We don't think that's good or bad, but we do think it's important to document those differences, because teachers will also adapt and change the materials they are given depending on their own experience, their students, or because of factors outside of the school. We want the people that design lessons to understand why teachers adapt lessons, so that teachers can have more resources to help them make choices that will best help students when they make adaptations.

We also study spread and sustainability of educational innovations. We research questions like, why does one math or science program spread to school districts nationwide, while many others don't? What makes teachers, principals, and districts decide to keep using a math or science program over others?

Finally, we study computer science education. Computer science education is having a moment of nationwide exposure. We've been researching who teaches computer science, why, what materials they use, and what training they get. We've also been studying the large school districts that have chosen to offer computer science, why they made those decisions, and how they're supporting (or not) schools and teachers in teaching computer science.

How I got here

I grew up in rural Washington state. My family was poor, and we lived in a tent (no joke) with no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing. One of the reasons my parents made so little money was because they dropped out of high school and only earned GEDs. They saw the value of education and always encouraged my brother and I to make education a top priority.

I spent a lot of time outside and loved observing nature. When I was in 6th grade, I went to a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) event for girls and met a wildlife biologist. I was so excited - here was someone who got paid to spend time in nature. After that, my goal was to become a wildlife biologist.

I was determined to study biology as much as possible. I was able to take advantage of a program in Washington state called Running Start, in which high school students can attend college full time for free. I completed two years of college by the time I graduated from high school. I didn't have many resources when applying to colleges - my parents had never gone - so I ended up choosing a college in Chicago because I wanted to see whether I could handle living in a big city. I'd never experienced anything like that - the biggest city I'd been to was Seattle and I'd only been there a handful of times. My first day in Chicago was the first day of college orientation.

Because I didn't know what I was doing when I applied for colleges, I chose a place (Illinois Institute of Technology) that didn't have any zoology or ecology courses. I studied molecular biology rather than wildlife biology, but I was grateful for the experience. I was able to finish my BS in three years, and had a little better understanding of what was possible in the field of biology. I heard a talk at IIT from a professor at University of Chicago that studied the neuroscience of fishes, and I was re-inspired to study something more closely related to wildlife biology.

I met with the professor several times to talk about her work, and applied to the Organismal Biology and Anatomy PhD program at University of Chicago (now called the Program in Integrative Biology). I didn't have any training in the focus areas of the program - comparative anatomy, evolution, neuroscience, paleontology, or biomechanics - but I somehow convinced the faculty that I would be a good addition to the program.

My years in the PhD program were the most challenging of my education. I had to learn everything from scratch, and had to meet the incredibly rigorous standards that University of Chicago is known for. I was the youngest graduate student in the program at 21. Most of the other graduate students that entered the program with me had publications and experience in the field. I was way out of my depth and struggled to get up to speed. I found many of the professors intimidating and in some cases, downright hostile. I considered leaving the program many many times. But I didn't want to be a quitter, and I stuck around.

My thesis work was on the African lungfish (Protopterus annectens), a fish that is more closely related to us than to fishes like trout or goldfish. It's one of the few living species in that category, and I studied the way it walks underwater. The reason this fish is interesting to evolutionary biologists is that it shares anatomical similarities with the first animals with backbones that walked on land 360 million years ago. My work generated evidence to support the possibility that animals with backbones could have been walking even before they ventured on to land.

I was able to publish this research, and it was very well-received, which would help me earn a professorship if I wanted it. However, I didn't find biology research as satisfying as I thought I would. The thing that got me most excited was working with middle and high school kids to teach them science and help them see that they too could be scientists if they wanted. In my second year of graduate school, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in education.

After that, I spent a lot of my free time exploring options in education. I spoke with alumni of University of Chicago and other scientists that chose careers in education. Most of the faculty in my program frowned upon students that chose to pursue careers outside of biology research, so I had to do most of the sleuthing on my own.

In my third year of graduate school, I met a biologist who was also an education researcher. I met with her and her colleagues several times to understand what their work was, and how they got to their jobs. I volunteered with the research group, and eventually secured a post-doctoral position there.

Now, I still work with the same education research group (Outlier Research & Evaluation). I get to use the research skills I honed as I earned my PhD, but I get to apply them to problems in education. My biology background is an asset, because Outlier focuses on science, math and computer science education. This job is a perfect fit for me, because I feel like I'm making a contribution that will improve education and make better education available to more people. My hope is that others can benefit from this and find a better life through education, as I did.

A typical day

In a typical day, I work on a couple of different projects, from studying what STEM schools do, to studying how computer science curriula are implemented in different districts nationwide, to evaluating national organizations like Code.org. In a typical day, I may talk with teachers or principals about our work, look for funding opportunities, write up research papers, design surveys, analyze or conduct interviews, or meet with other members of my team about any of these things. Sometimes, I get to travel across the country to observe teacher training or classrooms. I work a 40 hour week.

The hardest parts

I don't have any formal training in education, so one of my biggest challenges is familiarizing myself with the education research literature and the work that others in the field are currently doing.

The best parts

Collaborating with colleagues, feeling like I'm working on research questions that are important to others. Education in some respects 'saved' me, and I love feeling like I am contributing in some way to 'saving' others through education.

The myths of the profession

That social science research is somehow less difficult or important than scientific research. I've done both, and they are both difficult and important.

The workplace

We have a very flexible and informal workplace. I wear jeans and t-shirts to work every day. Everyone is addressed by their first names, and we even have a couple of office dogs.

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

Get lots of experience with quantitative analysis! In any research field, working with large quantitative data sets is becoming more and more important. I think anyone with research experience could do education research, but having a background in education or psychology could give you a leg up.

Advice to my younger self

Don't be in such a hurry to go through school - take some time in college to take courses on things you probably would never consider doing for a career. College is the best time to explore. Choose mentors that are open to helping you pursue your interests, even if they don't know anything about them.