I’m participating in Ada Lovelace Day, saluting women in technology and science. I thought about writing about a particular researcher, but I decided instead to single out the often anonymous heroines (and heroes) of science and technology, the teachers who inspire young minds to pursue science careers. Though their names aren’t remembered by Nobel or on manuscripts published in Science and Nature, the contributions of the best of these teachers echo throughout science and technology.
I was far from the first student in my Florida high school who looked up to Mrs. Findley. Even those who hated chemistry liked her. Somehow when she described how atoms knitted into molecules during my sophomore and junior years, I realized that here was the engineering basis of everything alive, a giant chemical puzzle. I liked being pushed, and I like that she made us think.
But she also showed us glimpses of her life outside the classroom. Her son– in elementary school at the time– sometimes sat at her desk during our 7th period AP class. She moonlighted as a caterer, and my first magazine article described how she blended hard science with a nurturing side.
As a senior when I agonized over my future, forces pulled me back into her classroom for advice. She wrote recommendation letters and offered a listening ear as I agonized over college choices and the increasing tug of my logical, chemical side versus my love of language.
Though I wasn’t the first student to ask Mrs. Findley’s advice, I was probably one of the last– at school, anyway. As I struggled with questions of my future, she was planning a return to pharmacy school. Her decision to reinvent herself made a lot more sense to me nearly a decade later, when after 5 years into a chemistry Ph.D. program, I began considering different career paths that still allowed me to think like a scientist. At 17 I thought that sometime before 22 I would make a magic decision that would fix the career course of the rest of my life. By 27, I understood the need to alter that course. I’d once looked at myself and thought that changing meant acknowledging a personal failure. But her courage to change made her even more of a role model– she was a terrific teacher, and I’m sure she’s a great pharmacist, too.
We need great science teachers to educate, inspire, and lead some minds to patents, papers, and scientific greatness. But it all boils down to making a difference one student at a time. Thanks, Mrs. Findley, for supporting me in ways that I could imagine at the time.