Thank you, Kirsten, for telling us all about your Career Adventures spanning all across the globe from USA to Germany, all around Europe and even across to New Zealand.
For this instalment of “Choose Your Own Career Adventures”, Kirsten tells us about her career change from English Major to Honeybee Scientist. She shares how we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help, that we shouldn’t let fear hold us back and that science is not boring! (We at Project Anywhere wholeheartedly agree with all of these!)
Read on to find out more!
Tell us about yourself
The short version is that I am an English major who wanted to be a writer. After graduating from college, I won a honeybee hive in a raffle. Keeping bees is strangely addictive and before I knew it, I was pursuing a career as a honeybee scientist. Bees have taken me all over the world: Germany, Ireland, Wales, France and New Zealand, where beekeepers hosted me in their homes for a month. Some day they’ll take me to China, Australia and Thailand.
The longer version involves applying on a whim for a German Chancellor Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation,
given at the time I received it to 10 young leaders in the USA, Russia, and China. (They’ve now added India and Brazil). I still don’t know why they picked me, but it allowed me to travel over 50,000 miles throughout western Europe, interviewing beekeepers, bee breeders, and bee scientists. During those 18 months I wrote about my adventures for the beekeeping journals. I had such a blast that I wanted to continue working with bees. I managed to convince Dr. Robert Page of Arizona State University to take a chance on an English major. He allowed me into their biology PhD program on the condition I pass the GRE Biology subject test within a year. I’ve never looked back.
What are you working on now?
I’m launching 2 Million Blossoms, a new quarterly magazine aimed at protecting all pollinators. I’m the former editor of American Bee Journal and Bee World. There has been a growing divide among beekeepers and native bee enthusiasts, which troubles me as we have many shared goals of improving habitat for the pollinators that help feed us. This magazine aims to find our common ground, inspiring individuals to make small changes in their backyards and balconies. We’ve lost over 75% of our insect biomass in the last 30 years. Scientists call it the windshield effect, as driving no longer translates into a mess of splattered bugs. These insects are the foundation of the food chain and their disappearance may be tied to our loss in birds and other larger animals. (If you’re curious, check out my Kickstarter campaign.)
Could you tell us about how your career adventure(s) started, about what experiences, challenges or opportunities you came across over the years that led you to choose your own adventure? Where has your career adventure taken you in the past leading you to where you are now?
I grew up bouncing back and forth between the east coast of the United States and Germany as a child. Moving across cultures and languages meant I was always a bit of an outsider. I’ve embraced this attitude in my life and career, choosing a circuitous but fulfilling track. Where I live is important to me and so I’ve turned down job opportunities in locations that didn’t appeal to me. I’ve sought out fellowships that allow me to live in Europe, exploring scientific ideas in new environments.
I loved my job as editor of American Bee Journal, as it allowed me to translate science into practice, helping stakeholders keep their colonies healthy. It was a job I did remotely. I could travel widely and engage with readers. When it became clear the owners did not value scientific accuracy I resigned from this position. In the current age of misinformation, I did not want to be part of a platform that allowed a contributor an unfettered voice. Readers knew I was a scientist and would assume all published articles had been fact-checked. Honesty and integrity are characteristics I value greatly, and so I stepped down even though I had a large mortgage to pay. It was a scary time. Luckily I have rainy day friends and family. They buoyed me, helping me manage my home as an Airbnb to pay the bills.
The house sold this summer and I was suddenly footloose. I love challenges, and so I’ve accepted two new part-time research positions that will push me beyond my areas of expertise. One is in Tempe, Arizona where I will be using honeybees as a model system for understanding how complex behaviour emerges from simple, individual interactions. The other job is in Berlin, Germany, where I will be assisting a robotics lab remotely for 9 months of the year. Then come May, I flee the hot desert to help run experiments in Berlin for the summer.
Resigning from a job I loved forced me to reflect on my core values. And it lit a fire in my belly, which is why I am launching 2 Million Blossoms. I have the career capital and experience. It’s terrifying and exhilarating to start something from scratch. But if I reflect back on my career adventures, I’ve never failed when I set my mind to something. So I am taking this running leap, betting that I can create a magazine that appeals to my core followers. The goal is to expand on a growing movement in our society. Through good story-telling and beautiful design, 2 Million Blossoms will bring together beekeepers, bee enthusiasts, gardeners and those interested in sustainability.
What past projects or anything that you have worked on spark joy for you when you look back at what you have worked on?
I love teaching beekeepers. When you open up a beehive, it looks like a chaotic jumble. But with experience, you can start to recognize the colony cohesion, how 50,000 individuals working in the dark can create a superorganism adapted to survive harsh climates. I often speak to organizations and I’ve learned to blend humor with hard science. I never dumb it down; disrespecting the audience is a terrible attitude. Instead I present the nitty-gritty details, but in simple terms and useful analogies. I show my own mistakes, turning them into examples of where we all go wrong.
I have a stash of short stories and children’s picture books on my hard drive. Writing them and refining them delights me. Some day some of them will reach a wider audience. Everything, I’ve learned, takes time.
How do you choose what to work on?
Good question that is hard to answer. I love a good challenge. I seek out lots of opportunities and apply for numerous research grants. When doors open or grants come in, I push forward.
What advice, practical or otherwise, would you give to someone looking to start a career adventure similar to your own?
Fear stops most of us. I hate asking for help. But I also like helping others. I’m not an anomaly, I realized, which has made it much easier to ask for help. Because of all my outreach and international travels, I have developed a huge network. Last year when I was feeling stuck in my post-doc position, I reached out to three different labs about potential collaborations, asking if they would hire me if I could generate funding through grants. Simply by asking, I suddenly had options. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask. If I don’t know them, I always craft my question clearly and keep it direct.
Could you describe your day-to-day at “the office(s)”?
I don’t have a usual ‘day-to-day’. When running experiments, I have long hours in the field. In between experiments, I’m often at my computer. I set my own schedule. I often do my errands during the day and then work late into the night, when there are few interruptions. It really depends.
Where do you feel you work best and thrive the most? (This could be ways of working or environments)
I thrive in collaborative environments. I do my best work early in the morning from 5-8 am and late at night from 7 pm – 2 am. If I have important writing projects, I use those hours as that’s when my mind is sharpest. I’m pretty useless in the early afternoon, so I try and handle tedious tasks like email responses or errands at that time.
What inspires and drives you every day?
Life is short. Personal connections with friends and family are what I value. I make the time for them.
What advice would you give to your younger self, knowing what you know now?
Science isn’t boring. And don’t be so afraid. Fear holds you back from achieving your full potential.
Kirsten’s quarterly magazine 2 Million Blossoms: protecting our pollinators is launching in January 2020. Find our more here!
Feel free to contact us if you have any questions about any of our career adventure stories. Come back soon to read more career adventures! Contact us here if you’d like to be featured here to share your own career adventures story or if you would like to write a guest blog for Project Anywhere.