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Challenge yourself, take risks: Dean Stefi Baum stresses the value of self-discovery in higher learning

January 15, 2018 — 

Visit the office of the Dean of Science and you will notice two things immediately: 1) plants and 2) animals. Spreading vines and leafy greenery are everywhere, living evidence of Stefi Baum’s love of all things gardening. The animals are depicted in a variety of artwork; everything from owls to ostriches, whales to walruses. Then there are the bird feeders attached to the windows. It’s obvious that nature has a special place in Baum’s heart, and the abundance of it lends the room a certain calm peacefulness, belied only by the piles of paperwork and file folders that adorn her desk. It’s a reflection of the space’s current occupant: Baum’s natural candour has a way of cutting through chaos to the heart of the matter at hand. It’s a valuable quality in a person who heads up a faculty with nearly 5,000 students, 176 full-time academic staff, 83 full-time support staff, seven different departments and a collective operating budget in the neighbourhood of $30M. Her personality is an interesting combination of gravitas and whimsy, underscored by an abiding love of learning.

That love does not extend to talking about her own achievements. She feels it’s beside the point of what she is trying to accomplish. Despite this reluctance, Baum admits that it was a pleasant surprise when she was recently named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“The nice thing about it is it’s an acknowledgement by your peers, so it’s nice to know that they appreciate all the work I’ve done, and the contributions I’ve made. I was president of the astronomical chapter of the AAAS, so I saw all the good work that [it] does, and the contributions people make, and the other fellows that came through while I was in that role. I just got the email, so it was nice. I just forwarded it to my family.”

It’s a far cry from Baum’s beginnings growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, where despite an inherent interest in science, she was unclear on what exactly she wanted to do with her life. An undergraduate at Harvard, Baum was initially pre-med but decided against becoming a doctor in favour of studying mathematics. A switch from math to chemistry was short-lived, if only because the requirements of that department didn’t allow her to play sports.

“In fact, I would have been a chemistry major, except they insisted I do lots of labs that ran in the afternoon and I was an athlete. I played varsity sports in college and I couldn’t do both. Either I had to do the labs in the afternoon and not play sports or change departments. So physics said ‘Sure, you can come get a physics degree’, and because most of the courses cross-counted, by taking more theoretical physics courses my senior year I could get my science degree and do sports. So that’s how I became a physics major.”

After graduation, Baum’s plan was to spend three years in Israel, teaching chemistry at an international school. Unfortunately, right before she was to leave, the job fell through. Baum found herself in Cambridge, Massachusetts, unemployed and at a loose end. Luckily, she happened to meet some people that set her on a career path she hadn’t even considered:  astrophysics.

“I ended up meeting this couple who worked at the Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics there. They were in charge of the data processing for a new, big astronomy satellite [ultimately] called the Einstein Observatory. So they hired me as a data analyst. I had never worked with computers; I didn’t know what astronomy was, really. This was in 1980.”

While only in her twenties, Baum was certain of one thing:  she eventually wanted to have a family and wasn’t willing to sacrifice that goal in favour of a career. She feared life as a scientist and researcher wasn’t compatible with parenthood. Lucky for Baum, her new mentors showed by their own example that it was. 

“There they were, these two PhD astrophysicists, doing research, married. Their dog came into the office and lo and behold, they had a baby, and the baby would come into the office every day with them. They were absolutely role models for me. They were my first mentors. They helped me get into graduate school, because my undergraduate grades were far from stellar.  There was a position that opened up in graduate school, working with someone that they knew and he asked them for recommendations and they recommended me, so that’s how I got into graduate school.

“Then I ended up at the University of Maryland, doing my PhD thesis. I had two advisors: one at National Radio Astronomy Observatory and one at [the University of] Maryland, and they were fantastic mentors. In fact, there was a whole network. There were five senior astronomers involved in my PhD, so they became this little network. Everywhere I went, there were people who were great mentors.”

Deep space objects studied by Dr. Stefi Baum

Deep space objects studied by Dr. Stefi Baum

Baum’s choice of astrophysics flowed not only from the positive influence of her mentors, but also her longstanding love of nature.

“Every night, you look up at the sky, it’s there. The sun comes up in the morning. It governs so much of our natural life and happiness, in a host of ways. I’ve always been drawn to nature and obviously the night sky and the day sky are an important part of nature. It’s sort of the ultimate unknown. There’s a combination between breaking it down to the elemental and seeing it as a whole and space is very good for giving you both aspects.”

Baum’s career path since obtaining her PhD in Astronomy has been varied, including positions at Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. Department of State and the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). As a systems scientist, she worked on the development of the Hubble Space Telescope archive, second generation instruments, and engineering systems. As a Fellow of the American Institute of Physics Science Diplomacy she worked to promote agricultural science and food security in developed and developing countries. Throughout, and to this day, Baum continues to carry out astrophysics research into galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and black holes.

“I’m not an ambitious person. I just fell into management roles after I got my PhD. I think it was just one of those things:  I like to contribute, I tend to be active and I like to work with people. After I got my PhD and my post-doc, I was working at the Space Telescope Science Institute which was in charge of the Hubble space telescope. There’s a lot of management roles in that organization. It’s sort of a cross between industry and academia. So again, I just sort of slowly found myself being in management roles. It’s just something that happened. And then I enjoyed it and was decent at it, so…”

When the conversation turns to what advice she might have given her younger self at the start of her university career, it’s evident that Baum is not one to spend a lot of time reminiscing. She would rather discuss current topics, including her concern for current Faculty of Science students, and the anxieties they face.

“I didn’t enjoy university, and I think there are so many students, if I look around here too, who spend a lot of time very tense and stressed out. I guess what I would say [to my younger self] is in the end, it all works out. If you learn for learning’s sake, as opposed to always being fixated on ’I have to get that A+’, and if you remember that the experience of university is really for you, so when you graduate at the end, you’re a more capable and worldly person, then all will be well. The credential is great, the grades are great, but if you haven’t really attained a new level of understanding and the ability to do new things and to learn independently, if you haven’t found out what’s important to you, then you’ve missed the most important opportunity that university provides.”

“I think it’s a different time now than when I went to university obviously, but I do think that at the end of the day, students should be focused on the fact that by the time they graduate, they want to have attained the broadest possible ability to learn for themselves, to think for themselves, to create, to work in groups, to lead. And they want to have found something (or many things!) that they’re passionate about.”

“If you just come in on a very narrow path, very tense and focused on only taking classes that will get you good grades and repeating classes if you don’t get the grade that you want, then you’re really limiting what you’re going to graduate with. It takes a certain degree of relaxation that’s hard to have as a student. But at the end of the day, you’re going to hit the wall at some point in the future if you haven’t built the capabilities in yourself. Sometimes to do that you need to take a class in that subject that isn’t “required” or engage in a research project that points you in a new direction, that takes you out of your comfort zone, that broadens your knowledge base, that opens you up to new approaches and ideas. Students may be getting the credential and the grade, but they may not benefit from all the interdisciplinary educational opportunities that a university provides. When students do challenge themselves and take risks, then when opportunities arise in their future (and who knows what those will be with the pace of change in the world), then our graduates will be ready, as we like to say in Science ‘to discover the unknown and invent the future’, not only for themselves, but for us all.”

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