Alumni Spotlight: Jessica TeSlaa

CURRENT EMPLOYER:

UW-Madison

JOB TITLE:

Assistant Faculty Associate

HOME TOWN:

Benton Harbor, MI

CURRENT LOCATION:

Madison, WI

RESEARCH TOPIC:

The regulation of neural tube development in the zebrafish embryo

FACULTY ADVISOR:

Yevgenya Grinblat

CMB DEGREE RECEIVED IN:

2014

DESCRIBE YOUR CURRENT POSITION:

I am a staff member at the Wisconsin Institute of Science Education and Community Engagement. I focus on supporting undergraduates, grad students, and faculty who are interested in incorporating public service and community engagement into their work as scientists. I teach several courses, and also work on a campus initiative to develop student learning outcomes for community-based learning courses.

DESCRIBE YOUR CAREER PATH FROM GRADUATE SCHOOL TO YOUR CURRENT POSITION.

I started a postdoc position at WISCIENCE shortly after I defended in 2014. The postdoc was initially funded for one year, and my responsibilities were to develop, teach, and evaluate a new class for first-year students, called Exploring Service in Science. The course was successful, and the one-year postdoc turned into two more years. Then WISCIENCE hired me as a staff member, to pilot a new graduate fellows program for scientists interested in incorporating public service and community engagement into their careers, a project that was recently funded by the NSF.

HOW DID YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH CMB SHAPE YOUR CAREER?

CMB afforded me the flexibility to get professional development in areas like teaching that I’m not sure graduate programs are always supportive of, which I appreciate. Ultimately, I think my time as a graduate student taught me that I can effectively navigate projects that are essentially black boxes – I can make my own signposts of progress, decide what a successful endpoint looks like, and create something new.

WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO PURSUE A PHD WITH CMB AT UW-MADISON?

I initially wanted to get a PhD in order to be faculty at a small liberal arts college, which is where I earned my undergraduate degree. I chose CMB, from among a number of other options, because of its reputation, the CMB staff, faculty, and students were so welcoming, the program had so many labs to choose from, and I really liked Madison.

DESCRIBE A “DAY IN THE LIFE” OF YOUR CURRENT JOB.

My days vary pretty widely, which is one of the things I love about my position. During the semester, I might spend a day prepping for a class session, reading and commenting on student writing assignments, teaching grad students, and attending a professional development seminar. In the summer, I might meet with a community partner at their organization, run a faculty workshop, analyze evaluation data, and work on writing a paper.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST AND WHAT DO YOU FIND MOST CHALLENGING ABOUT YOUR CURRENT JOB?

I feel really strongly about broadening access to the sciences and improving science teaching & learning. In my position, I get to do that at both a small and a large scale. When I teach first-year students, I have a really direct outlet to students. On an institutional level, this work is really challenging, but I love that I have the opportunity to try to create sustainable change for more students than I could ever teach myself.

WHAT IS YOUR BEST PIECE OF ADVICE FOR CURRENT GRADUATE STUDENTS PREPARING FOR THEIR CAREERS?

I would say that they should (1) seek out training opportunities that are related to their career goals that go beyond conducting research, and (2) to the best of their ability, not be shy about sharing their career interests with faculty. If their PI isn’t supportive of their interests, they should actively seek out other mentors who are. I think until it becomes understood that there are many legitimate career paths, grad students will continue to struggle to find good mentorship and training experiences to supplement their graduate research. I went through a lot of anguish because I just didn’t know what it was possible do with my PhD, and there’s no reason anyone else should have to feel that way.

WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER?

There are many pathways to a meaningful, fulfilling career in the sciences.

WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE IN YOUR GRADUATE DEGREE, OR LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER?

I enjoyed some aspects of my graduate research, mostly the benchwork, but I never wanted to be faculty at an R1 institution. The culture that I encountered among scientists and researchers was not always collaborative or supportive, and I struggled with that. When I started to realize what the daily responsibilities of faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions actually were, towards the end of my time as a grad student, I panicked a little bit, because I started to realize I didn’t want that job either. But I honestly didn’t know what other careers were available to me, and I certainly hadn’t been trained specifically for something else. Fortunately, because I had participated in the Delta program, I had just an inkling that there might some non-faculty positions that were still focused on science education, and I started applying to a few teaching-focused postdocs.

 

Read the full article at: https://wiscience.wisc.edu/