How Research Reaffirmed My Love of Teaching

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Member Notes

How Research Reaffirmed My Love of Teaching


Carissa Giuliano, SPS Member, Adelphi University

Giuliano presents her work on smell at the 2019 Physics Congress. She is holding a model of a molecule that can represent either nickelocene or ferrocene—molecules with similar structures but different smells. The laptop and laser demo illustrate inelastic electron tunneling, and the white and blue pieces on the table are 3D-printed olfactory receptors.Since the moment I stepped into my first physics class, I’ve wanted to pursue physics as a career. I loved every part of high school physics—the rigor, the elegance with which physics describes the universe, and, if I’m being honest, how fun the labs were. I knew I wanted to be a physicist but wasn’t sure where to go from there. I considered becoming an engineer, researcher, or teacher—the only physics careers I thought existed at the time.

Engineering wasn’t for me, but I couldn’t easily rule out research or teaching. I enjoyed peer tutoring and eventually decided that teaching would be best. I planned to major in physics and minor in adolescent education, a somewhat haphazard decision that launched me on the path to my future dream career—though not a straight, clear path.

I entered college with a relatively narrow goal: to teach high school physics. This single-mindedness persisted until my professor and future mentor, Dr. Matt Wright, asked me about my career aspirations. I told him my plan, and though he was supportive, he also encouraged me to keep an open mind. He suggested that college was the time to try a little bit of everything and worried that if I was too focused on teaching, I might miss an opportunity to explore another potential dream career.
I didn’t realize it until then, but this had been a nagging fear at the back of my mind. I followed Professor Wright’s advice and sought out non-teaching-related endeavors. As I learned about the plethora of careers available to those who study physics, I ruled out most of them—but not research. The following semester Professor Wright became my research advisor. My project involved both physics and teaching: I would conduct research on the physics of smell and present my findings at national conferences and other events.

Preparing for my research presentation included devising hands-on materials such as 3D-printed parts of the nose, as well as animations. I enjoyed both the research and teaching aspects of the project, but my favorite part, by far, was giving the presentation. Each time, I felt what I now call a “teacher’s high.” I was in the zone and passionate about what I was doing. It seemed as though teaching was still the right career path for me.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t experienced enough of the research world to completely rule it out. My smell project had given me only a small glimpse into research, and I felt that one more experience would help to solidify my career goals.

At this point, I was about halfway through college and the demands of the teaching program were growing more intense. I didn’t have much time left to explore other career options. After receiving advice from Professor Wright, I decided to apply for a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) position. REUs are competitive, 10-week summer research programs at schools and labs around the US. To my delight, I was accepted by Boston University’s REU program for the summer of 2020.

Typically REU students live at or near their research institution during the program, but due to the pandemic, my REU became remote (I was lucky—some were canceled altogether). Part of me was disappointed that I wouldn’t get the full REU experience, but there was a silver lining: I had the incredible opportunity to conduct research related to COVID-19. I was ecstatic to study something so novel and pertinent. If any experience could convince me to become a researcher, this was the one.

At the end of the summer, I presented my research to an audience of professors, fellow undergraduates, and family and friends. I knew that this would be the deciding moment. If I enjoyed giving the presentation more than doing the research, I was going to stick with teaching. If I enjoyed the research more, I’d consider following that career path.

As I started planning and rehearsing the presentation, I felt that teacher’s high again. I enjoyed the research, but the joy I got from presenting and teaching was decidedly greater. Teaching gave me a feeling that no other career trial had. That’s when I finally knew for sure that I was meant to teach.

I wouldn’t have reached this moment of clarity without following Professor Wright’s advice to pursue research. At the beginning of college I set out to become a teacher solely because, based on my limited knowledge and experiences, it seemed like the best option. Now, as I’m nearing the end of my undergraduate career, I can assuredly say that I know I’m where I’m supposed to be. Teaching is my passion and unquestionably the right career for me.

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