By Amber Charleville
In my ongoing quest to interview Wonder Women who inspire me, I knew I had to ask Dr. Kelly Cowan if she would be kind enough to answer a few questions for me.
I met Dr. Cowan in the spring of 2012 when I took her microbiology class at Miami University – Middletown, Ohio (Mum, as the locals call it). It was the first science class I’d taken in thirteen years, and I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect, but it was a class I had to take on my path to nursing. I wanted to get it right!
Little did I know I’d be walking away from the experience with a love of microbiology, a deeper appreciation for science, and a feminist role model. Dr. Cowan’s passion for teaching transfers to her students and gets them invested in learning.
While I love UMKC and have met many educators I’m thrilled and excited to learn from, Miami University will always hold a special place in my science-loving heart for allowing me a chance to learn from Dr. Cowan.
Now, we keep up through Facebook and Twitter, and I’m a regular reader of her blog, Microbiology Maven, in which she speaks frankly about life as a science professor and being a woman in a STEM field.
In addition to blogging and teaching, Dr. Cowan is also the published author of several popular microbiology texts through McGraw-Hill. So it’s no joke when I say I was lucky to grab a little of her time when she answered a few questions via e-mail for me!
AC: Can you tell me a little about your background? Where you’re from, education, why you chose microbiology, etc?
KC: I’m from Kentucky. I got all of my degrees from the University of Louisville. Then [I] did postdoctoral training at the [University] of Maryland and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. My path to microbiology was circuitous; I was a lost puppy in college being a first-generation college student. I was at various times a math major, a psychology major, an English major, and a dental hygiene major. At no time was I a microbiology major.
When I thought about graduate school, I was trying to decide whether to do creative writing or microbiology. I chose microbiology figuring if I was going to write I’d better have some experience in something in order to have something to write about.
AC: You’re now a published author of a popular series of microbiology texts through McGraw-Hill, right? How did that come about and how does it feel to know you’re helping to educate not just the students in your classroom, but ones all across the country?
KC: Well, see the answer [below]. I thought, “I can do better than that,” while trying to use the existing textbooks. Sometimes a little hubris can go a long way. That was one of those things where it was much harder than I expected but also much more rewarding – being able to change a culture from “let’s put everything we know in this book” to “let’s decide what we want this population to remember five years from now” and meet students where they are.
AC: You have a somewhat unique approach and an infectious passion for your subject in the classroom. How long have you been teaching? And how did you “get in” to teaching?
KC: In graduate school I had some pretty arrogant and lousy professors. It seemed like they mainly just wanted you to feel like they were smarter than you, and weren’t all that interested in whether they were communicating with you. I thought to myself: I can do better than that. And for that reason my favorite classes to teach are the ones with the LEAST prepared students – the 100-level students, non-majors, etc. To teach that population you have to really know your stuff, and beyond that, be really empathic, and understand where they are and take the focus off of yourself.
AC: Recently, you’ve branched out to writing for your own website and blog, too. I enjoy reading it, but can you tell our readers a little about what sort of topics you tackle and what you like about blogging?
KC: Well, it’s a blog about science, teaching science, and science and culture. And the occasional Rumi poem. Here’s a recent post that manages to tie together college football and women in science: http://www.microbiologymaven.com/miscellany/reflections-on-the-harassment-thing/
AC: You’re a working mom, too. How has that been challenging and rewarding for you? And how do you feel being a working mom differs from being a working dad?
KC: I hope that soon there will be no difference, and I see a lot of progress towards that. Unless you’re talking about the actual gestation and birth and recovery, there is no reason that being a working dad shouldn’t be as difficult as being a working mom!
But there is still a ways to go. For instance, in the academic world, the stage of life that you are on the tenure track, spending 5-6 years in full-out overachievement mode so that the one-time decision about whether you have a job for life will go your way – is the very same time, biologically, that you are likely to be giving birth and raising small children.
In academic fields that are male-dominated, it becomes even more difficult as your peers and competitors who are male are likely to have a partner who is managing the lion’s share of the parenting activities. Because of long-standing gender norms, even if a female scientist has a partner, she is still more likely to be handling the bulk of the child raising. That is changing for the current generation and it will continue to change.
AC: Recently, there have been a lot of strides to get women and girls more interested and involved in the sciences. Women are sorely needed voices in the scientific community at large. What has been your experience as a woman in science and why do you think it’s important for more women to join the (many) different fields encompassed by ‘science’?
KC: The whole enterprise of science needs to change to accommodate not only women but the new models of “doing science” – crowd collaboration, interdisciplinary work, etc. There are a lot of discussions going on about grants, publishing, tenure, etc and I anticipate that science in 20 years will look a lot different than it does now. It’s sad that the revolution will come not because women have always been undervalued in it, but because the majority population (males) is itself being affected by unstoppable cultural forces. But it is coming.
AC: Do you consider yourself a feminist, why or why not?
KC: Of course! And for those women who are proud to say they are not, I would love to make an “It’s a Wonderful Life” movie for them and show them what they would be doing right now without the hard work of feminists before them. Right after I make the “Wonderful Life” movie for the people who say government is bad, and show them what their “self-made” success would look like without roads, electricity, public health, and yes, taxes.
Thanks again to Dr. Cowan for making time to answer my questions. Our readers can find Dr. Cowan at her blog, www. microbiologymaven.com and on Twitter: @cowanmicro