In the field: Dr. Sarah Stamper

The phrase “STEM career” is a vague term that actually represents an exciting array of jobs. For STEM month, we at Girl Scouts of Central Maryland would like to introduce you to several women who work in STEM fields. They will tell you in their own words why STEM careers are the best!


 

Dr. Sarah StamperDr. Sarah Stamper
Postdoctoral Associate at Johns Hopkins University
Education History: BA from New College of Florida (2006) in psychology, PhD from Johns Hopkins (2012) in neurobiology

What do you do?
I work as a scientist at Johns Hopkins studying sensing and locomotion in animals.

How did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
(Or, how did you end up in this field?) I always liked my science classes best when I was a student. I love to learn by doing things ‘hands-on’ and that’s exactly what experiments are! When I was in college I had the opportunity to work at Mote Marine Laboratory studying sensory processing in manatees and dolphins and was instantly hooked. It took a little while (and a lot more school) to figure out how to do that for a living but I think it’s critical to follow your passions and work on things that you’re genuinely interested in. For me that’s means “playing” with cool animals that do things humans can’t!

What is a typical day like at your job?
There really is no ‘typical’ day at my job. There are a few things that I do often: (1) design new experiments, collect data, analyze data, (2) work on publications of finished projects, (3) train new students that are just starting in the laboratory or are less experiences, (4) teach courses for undergraduates (prepare lectures, give exams, etc) on topics that I think are fascinating, (5) travel the country, and world, giving research presentations at scientific conferences, (6) write grants so that we can keep funding the work that we are doing, etc. There are a lot of days that are hectic and overwhelming because sometimes it feels like you really have 10 jobs, not just one! But the variety means that it’s hard to get bored and you always have something that you can be working on. In particular, I really like that so much of what we do as scientists is interdisciplinary with others across a wide variety of fields and done in teams. I think the amount of science that ends up being communication is sometimes under appreciated.

What is the best part of your job?
Definitely working with the animals and designing experiments! I also really enjoy mentoring high students from the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, as well as undergraduates who work in the laboratory. And traveling for research and conferences is really fun. This year I will have gone to Ecuador, Canada, Switzerland and Japan! It’s hard to top that.

What is the most surprising thing that you have discovered about your field?
I think that sometimes scientists are portrayed as a little nerdy and not very social. In my experience it’s just not the case. Everyone is extremely talented but also interested in so many things outside of work. It makes for a really dynamic working environment that is fun. And I think that having fun while you’re working is the key to productivity and happiness in the job.

What did you have to learn in order to do what you do?
Well, after high school I finished 4 years of college and 4 years of graduate school- so that’s 20 grades of education!! I think that what you learn in the classroom is really important. I suggest that students take as much science, math and computer courses as possible. But, you’ve also got to get outside of the classroom and learn on your own. I did a lot of my learning working in internships and research positions in addition to my schoolwork. And it’s important to understand that learning never stops- I am still trying to learn new techniques, data analysis methods, etc for my work.

What is one piece of advice you would give to girls about careers in STEM?
There will be times that you look around and you’re in a room full of men and you might feel like you don’t belong. So I think it’s really important to remember that whether you’re a girl or not you’ve done the studying, put in the hours and are prepared and ready for whatever you’re about to face. You’ve earned your spot!

What is something girls should know about STEM?
I think with the rapid ability to share massive amounts of information that science fields are becoming more interdisciplinary. For example, in my work as a biologist I am now using control theory from engineering and information processing techniques from computer science. So I think that young girls really need to embrace all of the letters in STEM. In my experience, well-balanced and successful “S”cientists also come with the “TEM” in their bag of tricks. Remember, you’re never going to learn too much! Soak it all in while you’ve got the time to be a dedicated learner.

Were you a Girl Scout?
I only made it through Brownie’s. But I recall having an overnight trip to the Science Museum (Louisville, KY) which was a really great start for my interest in STEM. And a camping trip that piqued my interest in animals and their behavior.

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