Science Careers for the "Why Take Science?" Crowd

By Megan Sullivan, Steve Metz

Budget cuts in high school guidance offices often make it difficult for students looking for information about careers. It is easy—and common—to drift through school science and math classes wondering, "Why do I need to learn this?" Many students do not see a college science major or science career in their future, making the need to learn science less than obvious. Of course, the best reason for learning science is that understanding science is important in and of itself, as part of humankind’s search for knowledge and meaning. Understanding science makes everything—a walk in the woods, reading a newspaper, or watching the news on TV, a family visit to a science museum or beach—more interesting. The grand enterprise that is science springs from the most basic and fundamental of human desires: to make sense of the world.

But the next-best answer to the question—why do I need to learn this?—may be more practical and persuasive. All in a Day’s Work is a new book aimed at giving high school students a taste of the diversity of careers in which science is used. They range from the expected—high school science teacher, microbiologist, and forensics technician—to the perhaps unexpected—firefighter, landscape architect, and historical archaeologist—to the adventurous—astronaut, deep-cave explorer, and oceanographer—and to the offbeat—roller coaster designer, perfumer, and sport biomechanist.

These careers are explored through profiles of 34 people, each of whom gives specific, no-nonsense, insider’s advice for those interested in pursuing the career, including where to go for additional information. These profiles also provide a fascinating glimpse of what it is like to do science from people actually engaged in applying science in their daily work lives. The stories are interesting in and of themselves, but they also give practical information about educational and other career requirements.

In this excerpt from All in a Day’s Work, three profiles are presented: scientific illustrator, roller coaster designer, and forensics services technician.

Scientific Illustrator

If you have an eye for nature’s details—such as the way some petals of a flower catch sunlight or how its stem is covered in tiny hairs—then you may be a good candidate for a career in scientific illustration. This career requires careful observation to create images of subjects such as animals, plants, insects, and in Lynette R. Cook’s case, outer space. These drawings, paintings, three-dimensional models, and computer graphics help viewers learn more about the subject at hand. Scientific illustration should not only inform people, it should also inspire them and help them appreciate the natural world.

What is your work like?

Before I illustrate a subject, I gather information from my client, tap into my own knowledge bank, and do any research necessary to learn more, such as consult with scientists, science writers, and editors. I then create imagery that is scientifically correct, visually appealing, and appropriate for the intended audience (e.g., students, the general public, or science professionals).

The images can be found in books, magazines, scientific papers, posters, the Internet, and even PowerPoint presentations. One ongoing project involves working with The California and Carnegie Planet Search team to illustrate planets they have discovered outside our solar system. These extrasolar planets are detected by indirect means—such as observation of a neighboring star’s motion and brightness—and, therefore, can only be visually portrayed through artwork. A scientist tells me the type of star neighboring an extrasolar planet, the distance between the star and planet, and the planet’s mass. These facts give me information about the color of both celestial bodies and whether the planet might be large and gaseous such as Jupiter or smaller, dry, and rocky such as Mercury. After doing some additional research, I try to create an accurate and aesthetically pleasing illustration of the new planet. Learning about extrasolar planets before they are publicly announced is exciting, as is showing through my artwork what these worlds might look like up close.

What is your background?

I have always loved both art and science. In high school, when I began to think about college and a career, I had trouble choosing one field over another. As an undergraduate, and back then, an overachiever, I majored in both painting and drawing and biology. I also attended a summer workshop held by the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI). The workshop was my first formal training in scientific illustration, which combined my two areas of interest into one profession. I went on to graduate school for a master’s degree in drawing with a specialization in scientific illustration. During college and graduate school, I didn’t expect to end up in the field of astronomy and, therefore, focused on biology, botany, and zoology. Once I started working with celestial subjects, I took some astronomy courses at a local community college to expand my knowledge.

Advice for students?

Students can visit GNSI online (www.gnsi.org) to learn more about related careers, workshops, and lectures. The International Association of Astronomical Artists Web site (www.iaaa.org) is a good resource for information about space art specifically. While a science degree is not required in this field, greater subject knowledge makes an illustrator’s job easier. Students interested in outer space should enroll in astronomy courses; for those who like plants, botany classes are helpful. Because computer programs are used for sketching and final artwork, digital knowledge and skills are needed. However, it is also very important to have conventional drawing and painting abilities. A final product might be digital, traditional, or a combination of the two. To practice essential observation and artistic skills, students should create realistic illustrations of objects. For example, if a student paints a bird, he or she must carefully study and accurately record subtle details: its beak, leg, and wing proportions, and range of colors, highlights, and shadows.

Bonus Points

• Education: B.S., biology; B.F.A., drawing and painting; M.F.A., drawing, scientific illustration specialization

• On the Web: International Association of Astronomical Artists; Guild of Natural Science Illustrators

• Related careers: Landscape architect, medical illustrator, scientific photographer, art conservator

Roller Coaster Designer

Thrill rides, scream machines, loop-de-loops, colossal peaks, and heart-stopping drops—roller coasters may seem to defy all laws of physics, but don’t let that sense of danger fool you. A coaster has potential energy as it is pulled to the top of the highest hill, which changes to kinetic energy as the coaster begins its descent. Once the coaster is underway, gravity, velocity, friction, and acceleration are just a few of the physics principles controlling the ride. Although coasters are designed to be a frightening experience for passengers, in reality they are safer than crossing the street. Roller coaster designers like Kent Seko create these dynamic rides, which simulate such a genuine air of peril.

What inspired you to become a roller coaster designer?

I actually have a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Utah. My true aspiration was to become an architect. Because architecture was not available as an undergraduate degree, I took pre-architecture classes (required for entry into the master’s program) as electives. Many of these classes focused on design, which has helped me in the amusement industry. After college, a downturn in the architecture job market caused me to look for employment opportunities in other fields. I responded to an advertisement for Arrow Dynamics, the largest designer and manufacturer of amusement rides at the time, and was given a chance as an entry-level drafter. The scale and speed of the roller coasters being designed was mind-blowing. We were just completing the first 60.96 meters tall roller coaster during my first year of employment—a major threshold for coasters at that time. There are now rides over 91.44 meters tall. Several years into my employment at Arrow I was offered the opportunity to learn the ins and outs, or should I say the ups and downs, of coaster design. Fifteen years later I am still with the same company (now called S&S-Arrow, LLC). I have gained a lot of education through experience working in this field with some of the most knowledgeable people in the industry.

What does a roller coaster designer do?

The goal is to design the most exciting ride while meeting all specifications (e.g., the size of the site, location of loading station, other rides and buildings) defined by a client within a budget. Safety, of course, is of utmost importance. I spend a majority of my time designing and drawing models on a computer. More often than not, my company is competing with other ride manufacturers to land a project. As part of a design team, I work closely with the marketing department to make sure we are meeting a prospective client’s requirements. After a design has been finalized, the engineering stage of the project takes place to build and assemble all components of the ride. There is a lot of coordination that must go on between engineers, designers, and drafters during this stage of the project.

What advice would you give to an interested high school student?

I often receive inquiries from individuals who want to get involved the amusement industry. I always tell them to study hard in school, particularly in math and physics. Unfortunately, there is no university of roller coaster design. Anyone interested in employment with a ride manufacturer should major in engineering in college—structural engineering if a student is interested in ride layout design or the design of the structure to support a roller coaster; mechanical engineering if a student is interested in designing the vehicles or other mechanical components of a roller coaster. Additionally, electrical engineers are required to design the control system of a roller coaster.

Bonus Points

• Education: B.S., geography

• On the Web: International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions

• Related careers: architect, interior designer, graphic artist, electronic technician, aerospace engineer, drafter

Forensics Services Technician

As demonstrated by the popularity of such television shows as CBS’s hit CSI, and Discovery Channel’s The New Detectives, the intriguing field of forensic science is capturing the attention of many across the nation. But beyond entertainment and education, forensics plays a very real and crucial role in criminal investigation. Whether collecting evidence at a crime scene, processing evidence in the lab, or testifying in court, forensics services technicians (FSTs) unveil evidence that criminals aren’t even aware they left behind. For Jason Birchfield, forensics supervisor of the Baltimore County Police Department Crime Scene Unit, science is an indispensable resource.

How did you become an FST?

I really did not get interested in the field of forensics until after high school. In college, I took a variety of classes in an attempt to find a subject that sparked my interest—an introductory criminal justice course did just that. I clearly recall the first time I observed a fingerprint brush during an instructor demonstration. Although I had an interest in the field of criminal justice, I did not aspire to be a police officer. At this crossroad I sought advice—the undisputed counsel was "go to school for something of interest and you will succeed." After receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice I became a private investigator, gained some field experience, and eventually attained a position with the police department as an FST. After three years I was promoted to my current position as supervisor.

What does an FST do?

We are responsible for identifying, collecting, and preserving evidence at crime scene investigations in support of law enforcement activities. Photographing crime and accident scenes—including burglaries, robberies, deaths, autopsies, and assault victims—is necessary to record the appearance of evidence. FSTs also identify, collect, and secure physical evidence such as blood, body fluids, hair, fibers, firearms, and narcotics for laboratory testing and use as evidence in criminal prosecutions. We search for and develop fingerprints at crime scenes and participate in laboratory processing, as well as photograph and fingerprint suspects and victims. Other responsibilities include producing castings of footprints, tire tracks, and other impressions; preparing court presentations of evidence; and testifying in court.

What type of forensic evidence do you primarily rely on?

The importance of obtaining fingerprints in criminal investigations has long been considered one of the most valuable types of physical evidence that can be found at a crime scene. There are three different types of fingerprints: visible, impression, and latent. Latent fingerprints are composed of several chemicals exuded through fingertip pores and are left on virtually every object touched. To retrieve these latent prints, we collect evidence from a crime scene, bring it to the lab, and process it using different techniques such as, cyanoacrylate (super glue fumes), ninhydrin, fingerprint powder, magnetic powder, chemical dye stains, and digital photography. After the prints are recovered through those methods, digital images are taken and enhanced. Prints are then examined; once the unique characteristics are identified, the prints are imported into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System database to search for possible hits. No two people have the same fingerprints; we clear more crimes using prints than any other type of forensic evidence.

What background is needed?

The minimum educational background required for an FST is a bachelor’s degree within a subject such as criminal justice, criminalistics, law enforcement, biology, or chemistry. However, employers also weigh field experience when hiring forensic technicians. Students interested in the field must also be aware that a complete background investigation will be conducted upon application.

Bonus Points

• Education: B.S., criminal justice

• On the Web: American Academy of Forensic Sciences; International Association for Identification

• Related careers: Medical examiner, police officer, crime laboratory analyst, forensic toxicologist, psychological profiler


Megan Sullivan is associate editor of the Science Teacher, a journal published by the National Science Teachers Association for its high school teachers. Steve Metz is field editor for the Science Teacher. This article is excerpted with permission from Megan Sullivan's All in a Day's Work: Careers Using Science, © 2007 by NSTA Press (ISBN 978-1-93353-107-6). www.nsta.org.

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