2009 Colbert prize Recipient

Barbara J. Shaw

Barbara J. Shaw

I am a non-traditional student, and instead of starting a career that could span the next 40 years, I am fulfilling a dream.

I grew up in a small, agriculture town in Southern California in the 50s and 60s. My father was an aeronautical engineer during the US space race, and when at home, he would, staring at my brothers, ask who wanted to help him in the garage. I would eagerly respond, "Me, me!" while my brothers adverted their eyes. My father dutifully sat me on his workbench, as he tinkered on this or that project. (The times my brothers helped, they actually got their hands dirty.) I grew up with the fundamental knowledge that science wasn't for girls.

In high school, I was discussing courses with my high school counselor, and I told her that I wanted to take trig. She told me (and actually refused to let me take) that I had all taken the math that I needed. We would take IQ tests and interest surveys every year, supposedly for career guidance. Each section was out of 100% interest, and I would score in the high 90s for science, the mid 80s for performing arts, and everything else was below 50 (my low score was 4 out 100 for becoming a nun!). It was clear that I had an interest and aptitude for science, but as I approached college, my counselor strongly advised me to go into performing arts. It was a strong interest, and I should do well. I pointed to the high 90s science scores, and she actually told me that I could go camping! Okay, I get it. Science isn't for girls.

My mother was killed by a drunk driver who was out on bail for child molestation when I was 15. My father could not cope with her loss, and his life became his work. He remarried immediately to "give me a mother," but unfortunately, this woman actively worked to get rid of me. I left home as soon as I could, and went to a small college in Portland, Oregon. After 4 years, I earned a BA in Theater. I must have failed, however, because I didn't snag a husband.

I was damaged by my mother's death, my father's absence, and my step-mother's abuse. I didn't know how to deal with those issues, and I was very dysfunctional for many years. I worked in a business office, hated the work, and hated my life. When I turned 29, I decided that I had to change. I started to see a therapist, and began to work though the pain of my teen years. It was then that I realized that there was more to life. I realized that I could build my life into something with purpose and meaning. I met my husband, and we have two children. When my youngest child started Kindergarten, I returned to school. By taking classes while the children were in school, and studying at the kitchen table while they were home, I earned my BS in biology in 1996.

I went to work for National Wildlife Federation as a naturalist in the Rockies one year, and then landed a job at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, with one of the country's largest outreach programs. I taught in rural schools, cities and communities spreading the joy of science not only in Oregon, but also in Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. I spent time in Yupik Eskimo villages (even had to take a dog sled to the next school!), logging camps, two room school houses with 14 students K-8th grades, as well as working in Portland's over-crowded classrooms. I wanted more, though. In 2000, I applied for the PhD program at Portland State University, and began in 2001. My children were in high school, I was the sole support for my family, but I was following a dream that I never dared to believe would become a reality.

I am completing the final edits of my dissertation and submitting it this term. I am working as adjunct faculty for the Geology Department and the School of Education at PSU. I have built meaning into my life. I love my research (life-time fascination with plesiomorphic mammals, and the weirdest have to be the xenarthrans), and I continue to work with teachers and the community in understanding scientific process.

I would like to thank Dr. Luis Ruedas, my major professor, and Dr. Duffield, my role model and a major support in my PhD work. I would like to thank my children for growing up with me always in school. I would like to thank the Colbert Committee. I am so honored and proud to be an Edwin H. and Margaret M. Colbert recipient. Thank you.

Photo courtesy of Barbara J. Shaw.