A light bulb moment

I am one of the lucky ones. I didn’t fall into my profession, I chose it. When you choose what you do, your drive and sense of purpose is reinforced every day. Kind of like a light bulb powered by an infinite power source.

When I was young I wanted to save the world. A child’s vision of saving the world is really grand—something akin to “let’s fix everything!” I thought being a doctor would be a good start. Doctors help people; they save lives. As I got older, I discovered I had no patience with being sneezed on, so I needed a new plan. In my junior year of high school, a counselor suggested I apply for a program at George Washington University designed to motivate young ladies to consider computer science and engineering as a career path.

Interestingly enough, though I had always been good at math and science, I was never truly drawn to either (despite my dreams of becoming a doctor.) I was … unimpressed with my counselor’s suggestion (to put it kindly) until I found out there was a week-long stay on campus with no parents included. Then I was all in—and that is where my story changes.

The program hipped me to the news that engineering is just a tool and you can use that tool do anything. For example, you could probably change the world with it. The projects we worked on were small potatoes—like creating a computer program to explain to students how bacteriophages worked—but I could see the big picture. If you could explain to students, then you could explain to the masses, and if you could explain something to the masses, you were quickly entering game-changer territory!

Tonya Matthews -  CEO, president Michigan Science Center
Michigan Science Center
Tonya M. Matthews, PhD., President and CEO of the Michigan Science Center

Thus, my vision of a medical career expanded to biomedical engineering, my ultimate academic path. There was one more impact on me that I see now, but didn’t see then: The experience also planted the seed that “the real” plus “the textbook” would aid a student.

I am a nerd. Unabashedly. Even as a kid, I was a really good nerd and I eat information like candy. So classic, classroom learning from textbooks was never a problem for me. I excelled even when bored, even without truly connecting with the material. All those years of a being a star student in math and science, and it never occurred to me consider a career that was based on math and science or connect careers that I liked [to medicine] to math and science!

That George Washington University program added an essential real-world element to my equation by giving me an opportunity to do something with all my book learning. It was in that environment that I could see math, science, engineering, computers, etc. as useful and potentially meaningful even to someone who just wanted to save the world.

From high school, I went off to Duke University for an undergraduate degree in biomedical and electrical engineering, and from there I went to get a PhD in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University. I will pause here and note that my path has never been without barriers and mountains.

I am black and I am female. My introduction to my dorm mates at Duke was a raging debate about there not being enough “qualified” African Americans. One of my lab “mentors” told me he didn’t see someone like me really having a PhD. A graduate school teacher who didn’t call on girls in class became a delightful personal revenge tale when I aced his course. And, it’s weird that a student carrying straight A’s in math and science since elementary school wasn’t encouraged to pursue a career in that line until her junior year in high school.

Suffice to say, I’m stubborn and can be a force of nature quite oblivious to concrete barriers in my path.

As I was finishing up my graduate work in engineering, I toyed with the idea of leaving the lab and joining the classroom. I was doing research ultimately connected to deafness. This was molecular work using birds to unravel the mysteries of inner ear hair cell DNA. It was good and powerful stuff, but I found myself enjoying the interaction (student teaching, poster presentations, translations for the non-geek) more than the work. I volunteered at the Maryland Science Center and ended up getting a job there, an opportunity I assumed would be transitional. Located in Baltimore, it is a hands-on [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math], all-ages engagement space with a planetarium and an IMAX … much like the Michigan Science Center in Detroit. I’d like to say that a smart cookie like me had a plan at this point, but that would be nowhere near the truth.

I hit my stride in museums and education as vice president of museums at Cincinnati Museum Center. When it was time for me to move, I made a wish list of what my “what next” would look like. For one thing, a science center. I am a museum kid who is now a museum grown-up!

Hence my life story’s second pivot: When I thought about where I could be most useful, science centers came to mind because my journey could be a mirror for the children (and curious adults!) coming through that space.

In an entirely separate conversation with myself, I had started falling in love with the story of Detroit. I did not hear a comeback story in this tale of a city. I heard a story of a community who had never left and were poised to launch a game plan! Who’d want to miss that?

When the opportunity to lead the Michigan Science Center came up, I worked hard to look like I needed to be convinced. But the city and its science center had me at “hello.”

When people read my bio, they tend to be pleased that I am credentialed enough to be the CEO of a science center. And that “PhD in biomedical engineering” makes me seem so smart. And CEOdom is what the smart ones should reach toward, right?

Actually, I first consider myself an educator. I am in a space defined by free-choice learning alongside hands-on investigation and is not limited by academic entry requirements. Spaces like this are one of the most powerful companions to the classroom, with the potential to inspire and motivate every child the way that camp at George Washington University inspired me. Science centers across the country literally see millions of children every year. That seems like “save the world” potential to me.

There was a time when it was expected that the smartest among us, particularly African-Americans and women—would became educators. When I’m in a cocky mood, I like to claim a place in that legacy. Anyone who thinks of teaching as a second-class career should take all the teachers out of their life story—every single one—and try to imagine where they’d be without them.

And yes, it’s still about saving the world. Engineers are excellent problem-solvers and that training has given me another key insight: The most effective way to change the world through STEM is to build an army to do so. Therefore, I am on a journey of a 100-percent solution for giving every child and every adult at every level the opportunity to access, activate, and capitalize on STEM in their lives or careers. It’s an idea that seemed outlandishly aspirational until “google” became a verb and my cellphone became the most powerful computer I own.

So I have been blessed with the opportunity (and the good sense) to choose this gig. And it lights me up like a 10,000-watt bulb every day.

Main photo courtesy Michigan Science Center.


Sataria Lewis - 12:48pm • November 9, 2016

Dear Dr. Mathews, since taking this position as an intern inside of Michigan Science Center I have read so much about the programs that are offered here and I admire you for your admiration of this city. I also grew up a nerd but do to lack of education beyond the books my life took a different path, however I still am sluggishly in per suite of my ultimate dream of being an established educator although as I learn I teach. Thank you. You are know my role model. Nerds Unite...lol

Lisa, FBW editor - 4:22pm • November 15, 2016

Thank you for sharing your story, Sataria. Glad you found Dr. Matthews' story inspiring. Feel free to share this column with others. Wishing you all the best in your pursuits.

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