Geeks Among Us – From Research Lab to High School Classroom

We’ve had fun bringing you our new series, called Geeks Among Us. You’ve learned about an archaeologist, an empowered girl, and a pretty cool website for the eternal young adult.  Our next installment introduces you to a cancer research scientist who left the lab, and decided to make an impact on others in a different way.

The idea for the Geeks Among Us series first came to me after visiting with one of my husband’s old college friends. Rich Parent (yes, that’s his real name, and yes, he’s heard all the jokes) is your typical All-American guy, with a wife and three almost grown daughters. He’s smart, kind, and a ton of fun to be around. He’s married to another scientist and has Masters degrees in Biotechnology and Biological Science. He spent thirteen years in the lab, doing some pretty amazing studies, mostly related to cancer research. And then, in 2002, in a casual phone conversation with my husband, he informed us he was giving up the lab. He had decided to become a high school science teacher.

We want YOU in the STEM careers! Photo: Richard Parent

To those of us who’d known him for a few decades, it seemed like the perfect fit. He’s great with kids. All four of our kids love hanging out with him because he understands them, on their level. He can do amazing things with a Wiffle ball pitch and he does a spot on Cookie Monster voice.  He’s really, really smart and deeply loves the field of biology.  But who ever heard of a guy who’s made his mark in cancer research and pulled down a decent salary in the process walking away from it all, to teach (gasp!) teenagers? It intrigued me then, and it intrigues me to this day.

For the past ten years, Rich has been making his mark on young lives. He’s set up a state of the art biotechnology lab right in his school. Slowly he’s built up the equipment inventory, using creative sources, including donations from some of the same companies he used to work for. The contacts he has in the field, allow him to know when valuable gear is being replaced. He snatches it up, and the end result is a pretty decked out lab. His inventory includes things like an ABI 377 DNA sequencer, a BD FACScan, a florescent plate reader, and a 96-well ELISA plate reader (for more about the equipment and contents of his lab, see the video at the bottom of this page).

The students who attend Milford High School’s Applied Technology Center, and more specifically Mr. Parent’s biotechnology classes, are a lucky group indeed.

For any of you out there considering a similar move, giving up your geeky day job to go teach your field to the future generation, I used the excuse of writing this post to quiz Rich about the logistics of his decision. I’ve respected his choice for years, and finally took the time to find out what it truly meant for his family and his career.

To begin with, Rich never realized he’d end up in the field of cancer research. He always loved biology, so he figured he’d be a teacher. He has several relatives who are teachers, and two good friends from college went into high school education. Then he discovered, during the years he and my husband were raising Cain on the college campus, that there was this job opportunity where he could play in the lab all day. Before he knew it, college was over and the lab was his new home.

Photo: Richard Parent

But teaching still called out to him. Once his daughters were born, he found himself in positions he really enjoyed – leading Girl Scout troops, coaching, and teaching religious education classes. As much as he loved the lab, he continued to be drawn to the idea of passing his passion for science on to young people. It wasn’t that Rich ever hated doing research, it’s just that teaching called to him with a louder voice. As he puts it, “ I wouldn’t say I was running from research, rather I was running to become a teacher.”

But what does it really take to just change careers, mid stream? For Rich, it wasn’t as hard as you’d think. “The state of New Hampshire had an Alternative Certification System  in place,” Rich told me, “This allowed non-teaching professionals, such as myself, to be employed by the school system while I was working on my education certification. Since I already had a Masters Degree, I only needed to take these education classes once a month, for about 5-6 hours.  The materials we needed to generate for each meeting were already being developed as part of our normal teaching duties and the discussions we had were very dynamic and useful.”

(Unfortunately, that program doesn’t exist in the state of New Hampshire anymore, but each state has different programs, and it’s worth looking into, if you’d like to share your knowledge in the classroom, but don’t have a teaching degree.)

Photo: Richard Parent

So let’s talk money. How in the world can a scientist in the lab, who has a minivan full of kids, afford to step down to a teacher’s salary? This was another area where Rich did his homework. As it turns out, because his desired job as a Biotechnology teacher is considered part of the high school’s trade school, all of his years in the lab counted toward his experience. He was able to count his teaching assistant position while in graduate school, and his years in the lab. He entered his high school teaching career at the same level as a teacher with 15 years of experience.

“So the numbers were manageable,” Rich says, “ but that would not have been the case if I had to start as a first year teacher, making only thirty five thousand dollars a year. And to be honest, I don’t think I would have gone into high school teaching, if I hadn’t been able to count my previous experience. It would have been too much to absorb financially.”

His choice made even more sense, financially, when he counted in the summers he’d have off, and the day care costs his family no longer had, when schools were on break. As an added bonus, since he no longer worked across the border, near Boston, his taxes went down too.

Now let’s talk about expectations. When asked what had surprised him about teaching, he was candid. “To be honest, what surprised me most was just how hard teaching really is,” he says, “In the research industry, I was used to working in a very dynamic start up environment, which usually consisted of a 50-60 hour work week, but at the end of the day I was done. On weekends I usually had some reading to do, but that was easy to accommodate.  As a teacher, I never felt like I was done.  There is always something I could be doing, even after the typical 10-11 hours I’d already dedicated to my teaching duties in a single day.”

Photo: Richard Parent

Which leads one to ask, “Do you have any regrets, about leaving the research field, where no one is going through puberty or struggling to understand a scientific concept that seems so elementary to you?” And, as I’d expected, this was Rich’s answer, “There is no question I miss working in research.  In the early years I found myself looking at job opportunities every April and May. I’d have some serious conversations with my wife, about going back into research.  In the end though, it was important for my family for me to stay in teaching, so I have no regrets.”

On top of that, there’s the realization that he’s touched lives. He’s helped a lot of impressionable kids figure out their life path, and influenced the decades that stretch out in front of them. My friend Rich says it best himself, “For me, and probably for most teachers, the bonus is when students come back from college and tell you how prepared (or over prepared) they were when they arrived. And when they successfully compete at science competitions, or tell you about a visit to their doctor, when they understood the terminology. But most importantly when you’ve provided them with understanding and you see them making connections, making sense of the world around them. You know, those “Ah-ha!” moments, which really happen, every single day?  That is my teaching life blood.”

Because my own degree is in Elementary Education, I have a deep respect for teachers, on every level. I feel blessed to personally know some amazing people who stand up in front of those classes every day, and give it their all. To every one of them, and to my friend Rich, I offer up a hearty ‘thank you’ and a reminder that what they do, as tiring as it can be, is noble and important. No matter what path led them to that classroom door.