Department of Energy

The Many Paths to STEM

May 30, 2018

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I was a high school student in Taiwan when Samuel Ting and Burt Richter discovered the J/psi particle. Not only was it an important scientific discovery, but a Chinese-American physicist was involved, and he won the Nobel Prize. This was a turning point for me in deciding I wanted a career in science.

The path into a STEM career is not always clear. While my parents didn’t work in STEM, I was always interested in science and math from a young age. I ended up in physics because I liked getting to the bottom of things; answering fundamental questions about the world.

My own daughter wasn’t sure she wanted to pursue a career in STEM until, one summer, she came to my work to shadow a scientist and watch how they do X-ray imaging for medical applications.

These opportunities we give to students, where they can immerse themselves in a lab, interact with scientists and engineers, and see what a career in STEM can look like day-to-day, are priceless.

Matt Ware, a PhD student from the Stanford PULSE Institute at SLAC, leads a tour of the Klystron Gallery for incoming Stanford graduate and professional school students interested in energy.
Matt Ware, a PhD student from the Stanford PULSE Institute at SLAC, leads a tour of the Klystron Gallery for incoming Stanford graduate and professional school students interested in energy.
Dawn Harmer/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

At SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, we run summer school and internship programs that provide entry points for students at all levels of education: high school, college, post-grad and early career, as well as for teachers. The majority of the lab tours we host are tied to schools and educational programs, and we look for opportunities to make a difference, such as launching SAGE-S this coming August for high school girls interested in STEM, or hosting the Greene Scholars Program Summer Science Institute every year to help in their mission to increase the number of African American youth choosing STEM career paths.

SLAC is in a unique environment in California’s Silicon Valley. STEM is a driving force for business and culture here, so it’s often not so much about raising awareness about STEM, but giving students real opportunities to experience it in person. And the desire to do more is tempered by the need to keep these programs small enough so that the experience is meaningful; that students get to be hands-on, have personal interactions, and build relationships with our staff. Because these experiences can be life-changing.

Summer interns take a tour of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source (SSRL) at SLAC.
Summer interns take a tour of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source (SSRL) at SLAC.
Enrique Cuellar/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

I remember when I first walked into a National Lab as a grad student. I said to myself: “This is it.” I saw all the sophisticated instruments, the gadgets and widgets, and knew I belonged in a lab. And the scale of everything! Looking at those big instruments made me feel like I could think big too.

There is a misconception that having a career in STEM means you need to be good at math. I would say that curiosity and persistence will get you much further in STEM than aptitude for math.

There is also a misconception that STEM is somehow separate from the humanities. But actually, one of my favorite subjects in high school was philosophy. I found it to be an excellent foundation for logical thinking, which has a direct application for designing an experiment to test a theory. Not only that, it encouraged me to confront the ethics of science. Science on its own is neutral, so it’s incumbent on us to think about the moral outcomes of what we do, and the impact of our discoveries on society.

The life of a scientist is not for everyone, but the great thing about STEM is that there is no single path. Whether you go into industry or research, become an engineer or a scientist – or something else completely – what STEM teaches you is problem-solving skills. And that’s a skill that can be applied anywhere.