Archive for the ‘Alternative Careers’ Category

Alternative Chem Careers: Parrot Trainer/Researcher

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

I like listening to the audio of PBS television shows as background noise, because (i) I’m cheap, (ii) it’s free, and (iii) it keeps me in tip-top shape for pub quiz tournaments. I was listening to an old episode of NOVA ScienceNOW on the intelligence of animals, when a profile of Alex the Parrot piqued my interest. Alex was world-famous for his incredible—for a bird—ability to speak, recognize objects, and count.

Fast-Forward to 37:53

Alex died in 2007, so this profile was more about his trainer, Irene Pepperberg. Narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sexy science voice really grabbed my attention when he¬†summarized Pepperberg’s educational background:

Growing up in 1950’s Brooklyn, Irene initially set out to study chemistry, first at MIT, and then as a graduate student at Harvard. But in 1974, halfway through her Ph.D., a new television series changed everything.

[Cut to an ancient episode of NOVA about training apes to use sign language.]

With her Ph.D. in hand, Irene turned her back on chemistry and set out to begin a career in biology, at Purdue University. Her first stop: the pet store.

I love keeping track of people who’ve ditched chemistry and had fantastically successful “alternative” careers. Maggie Thatcher was a research chemist prior to becoming the first female Prime Minister of the UK. Joel Godard got a degree in chemistry at Emory and would later become the long-time announcer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Jerry Buss earned a Ph.D. in chemistry before he became a real estate mogul and owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. Cindy Crawford started out as a ChemE major before becoming a supermodel.

A closer inspection of Irene Pepperberg’s history reveals that she appears to have worked on boranes with Nobel laureate Bill Lipscomb at Harvard. It’s quite a jump from boranes to parrot training, but Pepperberg really made a splash and blazed new trails in the world of biology.

It’s always nice to have examples of wildly successful people who invested many years getting a Ph.D. in chemistry and later decided to leave the field. Such a decision takes a lot of courage, and I think many graduates feel needlessly ashamed of opting to leave the bench.