09/09/2014 08:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Do You Really Want to Be a Neuroscientist?

A few months ago thousands of college students swarmed the gymnasium of John Jay College to try to find long-term work placement. The room was full of tables manned by nonprofit organizations and university researchers hoping to find motivated students who were ready to gain real-world experiences in the job market. I represented the Brooklyn Children's Museum in our search for college "exPLAYners," a new group of students who would help motivate learning in our galleries. The job fair was hosted by CUNY Service Corps, a program that places students at a job site for 12 hours a week for 20 weeks throughout the school year.

As a job site, you have to interview 50 or so students in two days to find a great match. There isn't much time to get to know students, so you are reliant on résumés and cover letters.

All the students were from CUNY (City University of New York) colleges, and most were raised in the New York City school system. With a few new science exhibitions on the horizon, I was scouting for Brooklyn students with a strong interest in science.

"What do you want to do when you finish college?" I asked.

"I want to be a neurobiologist or a cardiologist!" they would answer.

When you hear this coming out of the mouth of a young student in her early 20s, you think, "Yes! This is what we've been trying to do with the promotion of careers in science for the past 20 years." Then you look at her résumé and notice a glaring number: Her GPA is 2.7.

College grade point averages aren't the only measure of a student's ability to achieve, and the context around how a college student arrived at this number is different for everyone. For some (especially under-served students), a GPA of 2.7 is outstanding. Graduating from high school is a major achievement. Progressing to college is monumental. A 2.7 means that you're passing and making it happen.

A GPA of 2.7 can also be a misinformed indicator of academic ability to a school administrator looking at applications into the next level of preparation for a budding neuroscientist or cardiologist. Perseverance is a standout character trait, but it's difficult to communicate on a résumé or transcript.

So how did this student formulate the idea of being a neuroscientist in the fist place? Being a neuroscientist is an incredibly specific scientific profession that surpasses a general degree in biology or chemistry. How was this über-science identity constructed in the formation of her understanding of what it means to be a scientist?

When you ask kids at Brooklyn Children's Museum what they want to be when they grow up, without fail you will generally hear the fairly similar responses of "policeman," "firefighter," or "doctor." On occasion a precocious 5-year-old might surprise you by saying, "I want to be a paleontologist." Being a dinosaur doctor is probably one of the most amazing jobs that anyone possibly could ever have for someone under the age of 8. Jurassic Park taught us that you get to adventure out in the desert, digging with a team of cool graduate students, cheering at the revelation of an unearthed raptor claw.

I wanted to be a paleontologist for a long time -- probably longer than most kids. My fascination with dinosaurs set me apart (and probably not in a good way) from most high-school students. After working at a hands-on science center for a few years in college, I was lucky enough to receive the opportunity to study paleontology with professionals in Arizona through a week-long internship: My chance to work with dinosaurs finally came true!


In reality, working with dino doctors was really boring.

Through my internship, I learned that paleontologists write papers all day long. Their exciting work comprises searching for funding to do those digs once every few years. Those cool graduate students in Jurassic Park weren't that cool, and they spent most of their time layering latex on Precambrian footprints to make molds.

A career in paleontological research wasn't in my future after that trip, but it did inspire me to think more about how we communicate about science in exciting ways. The research lab was attached to a museum that displayed dinosaurs in ways that made me more curious about prehistoric life. Working in a museum satisfied my inner science geek, and educating about science keeps me learning about new breakthroughs in scientific discoveries.

So when I saw the 2.7 and the smiling face of the budding neuroscientist, what was I to say? Diminishing someone's perception of what they want to be at the university level doesn't do anyone any favors. Students need a particular motivation to get them through the university system.

With the popularity of science-based professions in the media, and a push from the government and school systems to focus on STEM careers, its easy to see how high-school and college students would want to find a micro-focused career in scientific research. How many students have gone into forensic science because of watching CSI or a movie where science solves the crime? I think that as a field, we tend to showcase these types of careers because we believe that they can spark someone to continue into STEM fields, but how do we monitor the realities of what it takes to progress in one of these jobs? Internships are a great introduction to these worlds. They bring students into the world of a science job and give students the opportunity to work in the field in a low-stakes, place-based environment.

Working directly with paleontologists helped confirm that I wasn't going to spend my life digging for dinosaurs; however, the opportunity of working with paleontologists set me on a course of being a science educator. When we talk to young people about careers in science, we should emphasize both the awesome aspects of science careers and the importance of internship and service learning to understand if a career in science is really the right match.