Opening the gate to the road less taken

I may be slightly biassed, being married to a teacher, but I think they get a pretty rough time of it. Most teachers work hard during term-time (and a fair bit of their ‘holidays’ too), often doing a demanding job under less than optimal conditions. And when anything goes wrong in society, you can bet there will be someone pointing the finger at the teachers who didn’t correct ‘it’ whilst the individual responsible was at school.

Even the recent IoP report on the number of girls doing Physics (It’s Different for Girls) was reported in a way that blamed teachers for imposing their gender stereotypes on young women and holding them back. Whilst a certain interview on the Radio4 Today programme leant some weight to this hypothesis, I think it only tells half the story.

I would hazard a guess that most of us who use science in our work were, at some point, inspired by a teacher who showed us that science was interesting, exciting, useful, and perhaps most importantly, for us. We should remember these individuals and celebrate them – be grateful for them and make sure they know it. Heaven knows, they don’t get thanked enough.

A few weeks ago I came across the story of a particularly inspirational science teacher, courtesy of Dr. Carol I. H. Ashby, a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. I asked her to write a guest blog to introduce us to him – Mr Pentzer.

 “Why do we choose a particular path in life? What causes us to take on the challenge of a road less taken? Sometimes one person can have a defining impact on the future course of our lives.  Frank Arthur Pentzer was one of those people for me. With a single answer to a question, Mr. Pentzer launched me toward a career in chemistry at a time when women seldom went into careers that were not “traditional” women’s work.

In 1971, when I was a senior in high school in Lewiston, Idaho, Mr. Pentzer was the head of the science department. It was a big school with several hundred students in each grade and a separate science building that opened my senior year.  Mr. Pentzer taught me physics and second-year chemistry, but he also taught the required “slow biology” class for the kids who didn’t do very well in school. He designed a hands-on course with lots of microscope work and lab projects that taught the concepts without using textbooks that were too difficult for some of the kids. That was typical of Mr. Pentzer, a man who loved teaching all the kids, both top and bottom of the class academically.
He didn’t need to teach; he used to tell us that he really made his living raising barley on the family homestead near Winchester (about 20 miles south of Lewiston). Winchester was small, probably fewer than 200 people when he was growing up, but Mr. Pentzer had been able to study physics there in high school in the 1940’s. His teacher was a woman who was also a pilot working as a crop duster. She was asked to teach physics because the school board thought a pilot must know enough physics to be able to teach high-school kids. Maybe that had something to do with his attitude toward women and science.  Maybe it was because he was descended from homesteaders who carved a farm out of the American wilderness. American pioneer women were strong, determined, and resourceful or they did not survive. Women and men labored side by side clearing and farming the land, tending livestock, and working as true partners to grow their families and prosper. His grandmother would have been one of them. Whatever the cause, he was a man who encouraged everybody to strive for their best.
I loved physics and especially chemistry, but a woman going into science (other than as a teacher) was a rare occurrence.  I didn’t know any female scientists. I wasn’t sure that a career in science was something that I ought to consider, so one day I asked Mr. Pentzer if he thought it was ok for a woman like me to go into science.  His simple reply was “of course.” With permission from one of the people I respected most, I decided to become a chemist. If he had discouraged me, I would have selected another direction for my life.

A few years after I got my Ph.D. in chemistry and had been thoroughly enjoying my career in research, I wrote him to tell him what a defining effect his encouragement had worked in my life and to thank him.  He replied very quickly, thanking me for remembering him and telling me how much he had enjoyed teaching me and how happy he was that I had found a scientific career to be the source of such satisfaction. 
I am so glad that I took time to say thank you to the man who opened the door to my future. I hope that someday someone will look back and remember me as one of the people who encouraged them to reach for their dreams.  I hope that I will be Mr. Pentzer to someone else, passing on his gift of encouragement to embrace the possibilities.”