Laura Guertin – Earth Science Professor

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Name: Laura Guertin
Job: Earth Science Professor

I pursued an undergraduate degree in geology, and I was always drawn to the ocean and hoped to have a career in studying and researching coastal processes. I knew I would have to pursue a graduate degree to obtain this specialization, and I was fortunate enough to be accepted to graduate school and funded with a teaching assistantship. Keep in mind that I had absolutely no intention to teach in my future, and my marine geology & geophysics PhD program “groomed” students to work for the oil industry (this was the expected career choice). But in my final year of graduate school, as I started conversations and interviews with industry representatives, I thought to myself, “is this what I really want to do?” After all, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I actually enjoyed those four years of being a teaching assistant in the classroom and working with undergraduate students. So I took what I felt was a huge risk (the “risk” feeling that I was disappointing my graduate faculty and mentors) and decided that I wanted to “try out” teaching. I took a two-year teaching position at a four-year institution to prove to myself that I could balance the teaching-research-service expectations of a faculty member. This test run at teaching was incredibly rewarding (even fun!) and confirmed that teaching was the career pathway for me.

I was able to secure a tenure-line position at my current institution, a branch campus within a large multi-campus university. My campus has a primary mission of offering the first two years of courses for freshmen and sophomores (the general education and entrance-to-major courses) before the majority of students transfer to another campus or institution to complete their degrees. I am the only geologist on campus – a “lone ranger” in my discipline. There is not a four-year degree in geology at my commuter campus, and I am not part of any department. This presents opportunities and challenges. I have the freedom to teach my courses with my choice of pedagogical approaches – but in a classroom that is not a dedicated science classroom. Even after more than a decade of having started my position, I still struggle balancing my training and early passion to “do science” full-time with having no dedicated research space or a geology identity on campus and a heavy teaching load. By only teaching introductory-level courses for non-science majors, very few of the students I teach actually are in my courses by choice and/or want to pursue a degree in the Earth sciences.

So my pathway was not a traditional graduate school – to – post-doc – to – faculty position at a four-year institution with a discipline department and teaching and research space. I went the route of graduate school – to – temporary teaching position – to – tenure-line position at a school without a discipline department, without any other geologists, and without any geology students above the introductory level. This is not at all the pathway I had envisioned for myself, and I certainly never set out thinking I would end up being a lone ranger teaching non-scientists. But it is also not a pathway I regret following. I may not be making any ground-breaking discoveries in coastal science, but I am helping all students, members of our global population, increase their scientific literacy and show them the relevance of geology to their everyday lives – in the end, that’s not such a bad contribution to make.

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