ADVERTISEMENT

Katharine Duderstadt: From the Peace Corps to a PhD

A 1985 Westinghouse finalist studied climate change, and now teaches high school physics



courtesy Katharine Duderstadt

More In This Article

Her finalist year: 1985

Her finalist project: Building better bread by studying the growth of yeast in different environments

What led to the project: One of Katharine Duderstadt's fondest memories from eighth grade in Ann Arbor, Mich., was a science project in which she measured the amount of carbon dioxide produced by yeast in different environments. Not only did she like the science, but because she ultimately developed quite an interest in baking as a teenager, she found studying yeast behavior quite a practical pursuit.

So, as a high school student at Ann Arbor Pioneer High, she elected to do a science project that used calculus to predict the growth curve of yeast at different temperatures. She did experiments in her parents' kitchen, asking what conditions would help create the perfect loaf of bread—although she doesn't remember the exact answer. She also extrapolated the growth curves to environmental science and human population growth under different conditions—both also interests of hers.

"The best part about it was trying to unite different parts of my life," she says. "I remember having so much fun actually writing the paper." When she entered the project in the 1985 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, she was named a finalist.

The effect on her career
: Like many Westinghouse finalists, Duderstadt went to Harvard University, but there she chose a nonscience major: English. "The opportunity to study English at Harvard was too hard to pass up," she says; she loved listening to lectures from great literary critics, sinking her teeth into poetry, reading along the shore of Cambridge's Charles River, and improving her writing. "When I went to college I found out that I didn't know how to write," she says—and so she spent many hours honing her craft.

Those skills came in handy after her 1989 graduation, when she joined the Peace Corps and was sent to teach English to teenagers in Kazincbarcika, a Hungarian factory town. This was right around the time the Berlin Wall came down, and Duderstadt was the first native English speaker many of these young people had ever met.

She was also one of the first Americans to get such a close look at the environmental damage the communist regime's Soviet-style industrial central planning had caused. The whole town was often covered in haze, and "from November to March you really couldn't see the sun," she says. Some days, the air would be thick with the smell of ammonia, and childhood asthma was quite common; several of her male students flunked the Hungarian army's physical exam because of it. The end of Soviet domination meant the opportunity to diversify from this industrial base and do something about the pollution, but "the town I was in was very reluctant for change," she says. "Being a part of that history was very fascinating."

She was so moved by what she saw in Hungary that, after her service ended, she enrolled in the atmospheric and space sciences doctoral program at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She studied the chemistry associated with global climate change, looking in particular at what happens as polluted air from the U.S. Northeast is blown over the Atlantic Ocean.

She had great fun studying these questions, and finished her PhD in 1999. However, during this time, she also got married and had the first of two children. After a while, Duderstadt realized she was having difficulty balancing her research work with the demands of motherhood. So she started a new career as a stay-at-home mom for several years while her husband worked as a space scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Tex.

"For me it was a huge challenge," she says, comparing full-time motherhood with the Peace Corps's slogan: "The toughest job you'll ever love." She missed working outside the home quite a bit, and so after her family relocated to Massachusetts for her husband's new job at Boston University and her youngest child started school, she decided to apply for teaching positions.



What she's doing now: These days, Duderstadt is in her second year of teaching physics, primarily, at Newton North High School. She's pursuing her teacher's license while on the job—many school districts in need of specialty teachers allow such arrangements.

That makes for a busy schedule, but Amy Winston, head of the school's science department, says she's doing great for a new teacher. "Her PhD was in a field that really integrated all the sciences—that's something we're always trying to do at the high school level," she says. That and her Peace Corps teaching experience helped her land the position despite her lack of formal teaching credentials and her time out of the workforce.

So far, Duderstadt has not had any of her students enter the Intel Science Talent Search (the modern version of the Westinghouse competition). "Hopefully," she says, "in the future."

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article



This function is currently unavailable

X