Joanne Garlow

She/her/hers

You can find her on LinkedIN: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joannegarlow/

Education

I studied for 2 years at Earlham College in Richmond Indiana and did my last 2 years at the U of Maryland College Park, graduating in 1988 with a major in physics.

I got an MA in Theology from Washington Theological Union (A Roman Catholic Seminary) in 2004.

Current Job Title: Lead Software Developer at NPR

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

In the 8th grade we had to write a combined English and History paper on any subject and I chose the history of electricity and the study of the atom. I started out with how electricity works and went all the way down to how the electrons circle the nucleus and how radiation and atomic energy work. I loved it. I decided then to be a physicist. My friends teased me because I couldn’t spell physicist! But I was always good at math and really did well in physics when I actually started to study it.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

One big turning point in my life was deciding to attend a magnet high school for science and tech. It was there that I was surrounded by people who loved math and science and technology and inspired me to work harder and aim higher. It was especially important that so many of my best friends were women who were very smart and ambitious. There was nothing odd about me wanting to be a physicist or to take a lot of computer classes. 

Another big turning point was an internship I got right after high school to work in a government laboratory as a physical science aide. I worked there summer and part time while I was in college. I learned so much there, about working in a lab and working with scientists but I spent most of my time writing code for them. They were terrific to me.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

While I did pretty well in physics at the University of Maryland, there were some classes where just everyone failed. There was a major test I took where I got a 5 out of 50 and I had the 2nd highest score in the class. There was another class where the teacher was so awful that he gave a test with a mistake in it and a problem was unsolvable and he just blew it off.

My fellow students said that everyone just has to take the classes over and over until they get it and that is what they did. That wasn’t appealing to me; my parents weren’t paying for more than 4 years of school. Then my senior year I took this electronics lab which required us to spend 6-7 hours in a dark room trying to get these circuit boards to work and I hated it. On some beautiful April day I came out of that room and decided I wasn’t that kind of scientist. I discovered I am a generalist who likes learning about many things, not a specialist who will dig deeply into one particular subject. 

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

Then after I graduated, my boss at the lab where I was working said “We can give you a job as a physical science aide and pay you this much, or we can give you the same job and call you a computer scientist and we’ll pay you $6000 more a year.”  And I said “I’m a computer scientist” and I never regretted it. It has allowed me to be the generalist who gets to do many different things.  

I have worked for the NCI, NASA, and NPR. I got to work on a ground system for some experiments on the space shuttle and even got to send a command to have something happen in space. I worked on satellite and airplane-to-ground communications. Now I love helping journalism at a time when it is under so much pressure. I love that I have worked with the arts and music and science desks.  

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

This is a tough one for me. I think my theology helps me in intangible ways such as raising my emotional intelligence and my writing skills. I think my outdoor activities (hiking, camping, biking, kayaking, etc) has helped me bond better with my coworkers. I think my love of travel and my experiences living overseas in different cultures (Thailand and Turkey) have helped me connect with foreigners who come to the US to work in technology.  

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

Don’t get tied down too much in your first ideas about what you want to do. Stay open to alternative paths and jobs you find sideways instead of directly. Almost no one I went to high school with ended up with a job in the thing they thought they wanted to study as freshmen in college. And often the people who took the unexpected path are the happiest. That said, one of my friends wanted to study geophysics and she has a doctorate in geophysics now and has done a lot of work studying the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and she seems pretty happy so if it turns out you do exactly what you set out to do that can be great too.  

Just love what you do. I’m not saying there won’t be bad days in any job but if you find yourself dreading your job, starting exploring new jobs and even new careers. Life is too short and you will spend too many hours of your life working to be unhappy year after year.  

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