Professors switch majors, switch careers

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Professors switch majors, switch careers
Photo by Travis Hajenga
Math Professor Greg Bloxom shows off the tools of the trade.

By Sarah Richards

Pensacola State College Math Professor Greg Bloxom found his anti-inspiration to become a history major. He likes to tell the story of Miss Rudolph to “convince my students I’m not totally oblivious to their hatred of the subject [math]. I learned a lot from her.”

He’d been warned by his mother not to take her class, as she had taught when his mother had attended. Rudolph had a reputation of “concentration camp mean,” but he thought, “I’m good at math. I can beat her.”

Rudolph inspired Bloxom to become a lawyer instead, at least temporarily. “I knew lawyers were good at history,” which was something Bloxom was good at.

However, in his third year— 1984—the world was changing, “politics were changing…they weren’t what I thought they were.” A car accident on his way to his job as a factory supervisor took him in a different direction. He learned that the study methods you learn to study history does not work for math. “History you memorize, math, you do.”

He says algebra will affect you in the way you might describe something as hard, but “not algebra hard.” (Or, in his case, “differential equation hard.”) “The fear [of math] gets in the way” of learning. He’d thought about being a teacher before. He finished graduate school in two years, making high marks on the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), which is the SAT equivalent for grad school. Employers were looking at him, but he wanted to teach. “PSC cares about students…This is a cool job.”

He’s doing what he wants to do, helping students, for he believes that no one should let algebra keep them from finishing college. Dr. Kate Cavanaugh originally planned to work in the pharmaceutical field, and was trained as a medicinal chemist. Her biggest interest was the central nervous system. “What I really liked was using chemistry to explain how the central nervous system worked.”

Cavanaugh had considered chemical engineering before majoring in chemistry, but she wasn’t sure she’d be able to handle the math.

This is her third year as a fulltime professor. She was a five-year post-doctorate who came to PSC as an adjunct. “I started interning at a pharmaceutical company my first year of college,” which was the Holy Grail of internships, as it was a paid one. “Graduate school is juggling two full-time jobs. It’s teaching, taking classes, doing research at the same time.”

She majored in chemistry, minoring in history, the latter which people responded to with “that means you can write coherently.”

The trajectory of her life changed when she started dating her husband while they were in graduate school. “The deal was whoever got the rock-solid job first, the other person would follow.” Even though research was her passion, it’s “full throttle all the time.”

Though she did not enjoy teaching in graduate school, “teaching at PSC is not exhausting.” (As a post-doc, she was averaging 70-80 hour a week load.) She loves “the ability to have outside interests again…I’m happy to be where I am, personally and professionally. Although I do miss research, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing grants.” With a career in academia, it’s always hard to find funding.

For Cavanaugh, teaching is learning. “Each semester, I get a little better at explaining things.” A career in teaching is different than research, because one learns how to communicate to people other than scientists. “I could explain my thesis to my mother in a way she could understand…communicating science to people and changing how we explain things based on their understanding.”

Teaching isn’t just about knowledge, but communicating that knowledge. Those who say, “those that can’t do, teach,” are wrong, because teaching is doing.

Without teaching, there would be little doing, and for classes like algebra and chemistry, having a good teacher makes all the difference. This goes to show that sometimes the best teachers are those who hadn’t always planned on being one.

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