Career Profile: John Taber

Education and Outreach Program Manager, IRIS Consortium (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology)

Education:B.A., Physics, Swarthmore College; Ph.D., Geophysics, University of Washington.
John Taber provided the information for this profile for the 2004 Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences Workshop.

Jump down to: Description of current position * Career path * Advice for graduate students

Description of current position

My job entails managing the Education and Outreach Program for the IRIS Consortium. The E&O Program is one of four core programs of IRIS, a university consortium that provides seismic data and equipment for seismologists worldwide. The E&O Program has a staff of 3.5 (including myself) and much of the work of the Program is also conducted via volunteer efforts and subawards to IRIS institutions. The IRIS E&O Program provides products and activities for a variety of audiences, including the general public, K-12 students and educators, and post-secondary students and college faculty. Activities include museum displays, teacher and college faculty workshops, educational seismographs and data analysis, a public lecture series, undergraduate summer internships, and publications (educational posters, classroom modules, website materials).

My job gives me the opportunity to work with energetic and committed scientists and educators from all over the US. I enjoy the challenge of designing science education products to fit the needs and interests of a range of audiences. I also enjoy the variety in my daily activities and the chance to travel to various institutions around the US. Some of my biggest challenges are keeping a wide range of activities on track and finding ways to implement potential new products.

I think that the field of science education, where one works at the interface between science and education, will continue to grow as more and more science organizations see the value of having individuals on their staff specializing in providing science content and activities for a range of non-technical audiences. I think it is an excellent career choice for individuals who are enthusiastic about sharing scientific concepts and results with a wide audience.

Career path

As a graduate student, I assisted in seismic field work around Mt. St. Helens and got my first taste of giving talks to the general public by presenting my experiences working on an active volcano. My first position after graduate school was as a research scientist at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory where I managed the Eastern Aleutian seismic network and engaged in seismotectonic research. While there I lectured as part of science enrichment program for high school students at Columbia.

After 6 years at Lamont I accepted a two- year post-doc at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. I loved New Zealand, extended the post-doc, and eventually landed an externally-funded position at the university. It was a research position with some teaching duties and had more flexibility than a regular departmental position, particularly in terms of outreach beyond the university. I started with a 5-year renewable contract, and I was in the middle of my second 5 years when I applied for my current position.

While at Victoria I co-authored a general interest book on earthquakes and volcanoes in New Zealand and started up an educational seismic network for high schools. By that time I had decided that I would say yes to each opportunity to engage in educational activities so that I could develop enough experience to switch from research to education. I very much enjoyed the field work part of research but I wasn't very good about finishing papers and by then I realized my real passion had always been education, not research.

I was encouraged to apply for my current job at an AGU meeting through contacts I had maintained since my time at Lamont. That gave me a bit more time to think about the position (and the prospect of moving back to the US) than I would have, had I first learned about it through the EOS advertisement. I was probably at a disadvantage because I had been out of the US for 12 years but I had kept up enough contacts that I could show that I was not a newcomer to the community. I was also able to demonstrate that I had some experience in a number of the job duties and I think I conveyed my enthusiasm for the position.

Advice for graduate students

I think it is important to choose a career where you really enjoy what you are doing and don't limit yourself to considering only the standard academic option of postdoc followed by research position. It took me a long time to realize that it was ok to have a job where writing scientific papers was not the primary goal.

On personal choices and careers

I enjoyed and benefited from my time in New Zealand (meeting and marrying my wife Kathy was a very important part). While there were fewer positions available in a small country, I think the smaller, more tightly knit scientific community made it easier to gain experience in a variety of fields. However the small scale of the science education community made it hard to envisage a full-time earth science education position, which made it easier to consider moving back to the US.