Networking for Nerds

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Networking for Nerds

Professional science societies offer opportunities for connecting


Alaina G. Levine, a former SPS chapter president

Alaina G. Levine on assignment for IEEE Spectrum Magazine, covering an engineer who works for a race car team. She wore the fire suit for protection because she was in the "pit" with the racing team. And she landed this gig through networking with a former physics major! Photo courtesy of Alaina G. Levine.

What was your first contact with a professional science society beyond SPS?

My very first scientific conference that I ever went to: an APS March Meeting. That meeting changed my life in a very significant way. I had decided to hang out in the press room. This is something I encourage people who are interested in a communications career to do. You can even volunteer to work in the press room.

There I met the public relations director of APS, who would turn out to be very significant in my life. A few months after the meeting, he emailed me that he was vacating his job and asked if I would be interested in applying. He put me in touch with Alan Chodos, who was heading the search for his replacement.

I didn’t take the job, but Alan and I started a series of conversations and a collaboration that lasted for 16 years. I did volunteer work and project work for him. I eventually pitched him an idea for a column in the monthly APS News called Profiles in Versatility about physicists in nontraditional careers. He accepted it, and he was my editor until he retired. And since 2014, David Voss is my editor. I still do occasional freelance work for Alan.

What brought you to this meeting?

As an undergraduate who majored in math at the University of Arizona, I had worked as an assistant to the communications director. She left. After graduating, I decided to apply for her position and got the job.

The “aha” moment for me was truly recognizing that with an undergraduate degree in math or physical sciences, the universe is open to you to do anything. What I was very interested in was communications.

Four years later I was hired by the dean at the college of sciences to create opportunities for students who don’t want to get a Ph.D., students who will work in industry. The abstract deadline for APS fell within a week or two of me getting this job. I ran to the dean and asked if I could go to it. To me it was like this magical place of gods and goddesses, celebrities that I had really admired in physics plus all these nerds and geeks who were so excited about physics. I turned in my abstract, and it was accepted, so I went.

Levine signing copies of her book, Networking for Nerds, at the Tucson Festival of Books in 2016. The forward is written by Physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt. Photo courtesy of Alaina G. Levine.

What advice do you have for undergraduates attending a conference?

One of the biggest things that you can do is to go through the program in advance and look for speakers you are interested in talking with, including people giving posters or exhibitors. Contact them and ask for 15-minute coffee appointments at the meeting. Most students don’t do this. But professionals are usually very excited to talk to young early career scientists. You don’t have to be an expert to meet with them. You’re not expected to be; you’re a student.

You can also volunteer to work at the conference. This gives you a reason to talk to people at the conference and could open hidden career opportunities. I remember I was giving a talk once and my computer died. The student volunteer ran the length of the building to get me a new one. Will I help this student if they approach me again? You betcha.

I’m really into networking. When it’s lunch time or dinner time, I always encourage people not to eat alone. Two years ago at the American Geophysical Union conference, I made a connection in a line for the ladies room; the woman standing in front of me worked for a nonprofit that I was interested in working with, so we exchanged cards and started a conversation.

When you see Dr. Nobel Prize walking down the hall by herself, take advantage of that moment. Introduce yourself and tell her that you’re an undergraduate who is really interested in particle physics or whatever.

Opportunities like that are fleeting. And don’t be shy about following up with people after the meeting. You never know what new opportunities will arise, months or even years later.

What other benefits does an undergraduate get from joining a professional science society?

One perk you have as a member is access to the membership directory. Senior scientists access the directory for strategic networking, to find potential collaborators. Early career scientists tend not to think that way. But if you’re interested in working in company X or country Y or industry Z, you could easily do a search in the membership directory and find people who are in those areas or might know people in those areas. Since you’re both members, you have a perfect excuse for chatting. Reach out, set up a Skype call, say, “I want to learn more about what I can do to be successful.”

Every professional organization operates through committees. They are always looking for students interested in serving. It’s a great way to meet new people and gain leadership experience. And someone on the committee might think, “Wow, this person is doing such a great job. How great would it be if they interned at my lab or worked at my company?” //

Levine served as keynote speaker on networking and accessing hidden career opportunities at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Photo by Steve McCaw.


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