As promised, here’s Prof. Terry Freeman’s interview to The Science and Engineering Café. I really liked her responses to my questions, she gives us some honest and personal answers. Her successful career is an inspiration to all of us, especially young women working in the STEM field.
Thank you Terry for the interview and for following your mentor’s steps in mentoring others.
Dr. Freeman’s exclusive interview to The Science and Engineering Café
1) Why and when did you decide to become a professor/researcher/scientist?
Interestingly, as a student in college I really didn’t think about a career in academia. After I graduated from undergrad, I was a high school teacher and a lab instructor at a Community College. Only after becoming more of a colleague to the Professors who taught at the Community College, did I realize that this was something that I could do. In other words, that becoming a Professor wasn’t just for someone who was an elite scientist. By this time, I had started my family and so (10 yrs. from when I had graduated with a BS) when my children were both in school, I decided to go back and get my PhD. I was lucky enough to get a Teaching Assistantship at Rutgers University and this paid a stipend and tuition, which meant I could still contribute to my family.
2) How much did your mentor influence you?
I would say I was influenced in several ways by my PhD mentor and I try to carry on these things with my students. First, while in his lab I was always treated more as a colleague than a student. Second, he always had an open door policy and was accessible for questions and discussions. Third, he was very knowledgeable about all the procedures and equipment, and so could help troubleshoot and would happily come to the bench to work things out. Forth, he always understood if something didn’t work and would never yell or get mad even when deadlines were involved. Finally, he had a love of learning and exploring all of science and was not narrowly focused on getting the specific answer he had hypothesized, thus observation, creative thinking, and questioning was highly encouraged.
3) Which is your most significant breakthrough in your career so far?
I am not sure if these are significant breakthroughs, but my two proudest achievements are having my PhD dissertation published in the journal “Science”. I always say, I peeked too early, as this is a hard act to follow. I was also extremely honored to have been awarded the Elizabeth W Bingham Award for mentoring women scientists from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Women in Science (AWIS). Finally, I am very excited to be involved in the development of the field of Plasma Medicine, and I am hoping for a significant breakthrough in this area.
4) Describe a time in your career that you had to make a difficult decision.
When I graduated with my PhD, I was hired at the University of Pennsylvania as a Research Assistant Professor, without doing a post-doc, and I was very happy with this position. Unfortunately, because I had finished my PhD in only four years, my children were still very young and I felt that the time I was devoting to this position was interfering with family life. I decided it would be better to take a job as an Application Scientist for a small company, where I could work from home and make my own schedule, so I could attend school events and be home after school. This decision was not the one I would have made in the best interest of my career. However, I think being a woman in science means at some point you are going to have to make decisions and compromises that make your life work the best for you. While these kinds of decisions are very hard, I do not regret the time I had with my children and it ended up working out extremely well. After 7 years, when the kids got their drivers licenses, I was very lucky to be able to return to academia, where I worked my way up into my current position as an Associate Professor.