An interview with Professional in Residence Faith Dukes: Building authentic connections in science between academia, government, and K-12 education

Faith Dukes, PhD, is the director of K-12 STEM Education and Outreach programs at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Dukes is joining the QB3-Berkeley Professionals in Residence (PIR) program on October 7th, 12th, and 14th. UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley Lab graduate students and postdocs may register for Dukes’ PIR events here. Dukes spoke with graduate student Ana Lyons about her journey from being an undergraduate at Spelman College—where she honed her commitment to research and outreach—to her time as a PhD student in chemistry, as well as many experiences in science communication and policy in between, that helped shape her career.

Ana Lyons: Could you please explain your role, what you do, and what a typical day-to-day looks like?

Faith Dukes: I am the director of K-12 STEM Education and Outreach programs at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Berkeley Lab is an Office of Science, Department of Energy national lab which funds large scale experiments and brings together teams of scientists to solve big problems. My job is to provide access and create opportunities for young people to engage with our research facilities and researchers. This can include partnering with local organizations to host STEM nights to building long-term interactions and internship programs for students. 

A typical day can include talking to K-12 colleagues across the national lab complex about strategies and content development, developing a one-off program with scientists, and having discussions with local school districts about engagement. I’m mainly a connector of people and resources. I’m constantly thinking about how we can remove barriers so that students get access to the amazing science being done at Berkeley Lab and eventually see themselves working in STEM.

Headshot of Faith Dukes
Dr. Faith Dukes will be visiting QB3-Berkeley this month as our Professional in Residence.

AL: Could you briefly describe your career trajectory?

FD: I’m an east coaster, originally from Georgia. I went to high school in Georgia, and I went to Spelman College, which is a historically black women’s college. I studied chemistry at Spelman, where we have a wonderful legacy of saying we are “women who serve.” This was always in the forefront of my mind as I continued my career. I want to achieve really great things in the world and I  always want to be of service. As an undergraduate, I began to volunteer with organizations like  the National Society of Black Engineer where I supported a pre-college program. This work started to inform me about outreach, specifically in STEM. 

From there, I went to graduate school at Tufts University, where I pursued my PhD in chemistry. While there, I had the opportunity to work with a nonprofit called Science from Scientists, which has graduate students go into the classroom twice a month for the entire school year. 

Through this program, you really get to bond not only with the students but with teachers—to understand educational pedagogy, classroom management, think about what tools they are using, and also supplement the science curriculum. During my visits I shared a real-world perspective of a researcher and I got to share with the students how what they’re studying connects to greater research—so that was really, really wonderful. I stayed with one teacher for three years, traveling with her from six to eighth grade, and I worked with the program for five years.

As I was about to graduate, there was a really great job posting at MIT. There was a position at their museum (the MIT Museum), and they needed someone who could speak to the researchers at MIT and build out programming that was reflective not only of the research but of exhibitions and the collections within the museum. This combined my expertise in research with science education and the organizational skills I had been building by organizing a girls conference with other Spelman alumnae in the Boston area.

I spent four years at MIT being a kid in a candy shop. I was amazed to learn about new research pathways and opportunities for careers in science that were new to me. This made me very motivated to get the word out. I was able to do not only programming for middle and high school students but also adult programming. I had a very fun team, where we got to be imaginative and thoughtful, and creative in the ways that we talked about science. After my fourth year, I started to get an itch of  wondering where I should be next. 

I applied for a science tech policy fellowship because I wanted to know what’s happening in terms of research and funding, at the federal level. Through the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program, I spent a year and a half at the National Science Foundation getting to really see how people are funding grants, thinking about broadening participation in STEM, and implementing STEM education. 

Given that the fellowship was only two years, I began to apply for jobs again and found this really wonderful job here at Berkeley Lab. This job, again, pulled more of my worlds together, combining my experiences at a government agency with research, science outreach, evaluation and content development. I definitely don’t think I could have imagined this route if you told me when I was first starting out, but it’s been really wonderful.

AL: How did your experiences as a graduate student prepare you for your current career?

FD: Graduate school provided great training in project management and people management. When you’re in graduate school you have experiments, data collection, data analysis, and constant consideration of how to move toward a  final paper. All of those things we’re talking about are the process of how to go from zero to something tangible. 

I think my advisor also saw that I was pretty responsible. By the end of my graduate career, I was also supervising about three undergraduates. I started to get into the process of supervising people and helping them understand what’s needed in a mentorship. 

Some final pieces from graduate school preparation that were helpful for my current career included: understanding scientific language and what it means to be someone who goes into a laboratory every day or using certain systems of equipment or techniques that are being done. For example, it’s really helpful to understand and to have a knowledge of what microscopy is or what certain analysis techniques are when you’re trying to be a communicator. The skillset you develop in graduate school often allows you to figure technical things out, with just a short amount of time to study, in order to better communicate it. It gives a little bit more trust. It helps in the same way as me saying “Hey, I’ve also done five years of classwork, even if it was only twice a month it was for five years.” It gives me a little bit of trust with teachers when I’m coming in and I’m saying I’d like to try to implement something new, related to our science education work.

AL: What advice would you give to current graduate students interested in K-12 education and policy?

FD: The first thing is to think about what skillsets you need to be successful. Rather than looking for specific job titles, think about what each position’s job description really means. For me that means, do I still get to read about cutting-edge research and interact with scientists who are doing this research? Do I get to think about how we can leverage certain spaces and close gaps?  

For graduate students interested in K-12 education or policy, think about what are the things that you want to do in your future and how that fits into K-12 education. And right now, think about ways in which you can communicate your science and help others to communicate. Do you want to be in policy? Think about what are the other experiences that will get you into policy. Do you want to be a communicator? Think about how you can get more practice or whether there’s a class you can take that can help in your training.

I advocate for graduate students to strongly consider the AAAS Science & Technology Fellowship program, as it is a wonderful, wonderful way to segway into many of these spheres.  I’ll say about 50 to 60% of the people who are in this fellowship program are those who are just coming out of graduate school or their first year of a postdoc. But you can pursue this fellowship at any point, as you’ll notice from my trajectory. I personally waited for four years before applying for the fellowship. In my case, this was really helpful because I had practice at a full-time job, and I came in knowing what skillsets I wanted to get out of the fellowship year. 

So overall my advice is to get the practice and focus on expanding your skillsets. Also, don’t over commit yourself. This is my own opinion, but I think it’s really great when someone says, “This is my one program that I really commit to being engaged in this program.” It is great when you can have a leadership position in this organization and have really created something, and utilize the infrastructure of an existing organization for outreach sustainability. 

As another piece of general advice: the main thing that I look for when I’m hiring for team members is flexibility and adaptability. If something goes wrong—if your computer doesn’t work, if the kids come in and they aren’t engaged in the first topic, can you switch over? Or what if something happens where you thought you were going to have an hour to talk and now you only have 20 minutes? Those are the things that are especially important while being in education or policy: being adaptable and being able to be creative and not get caught up in whatever was “supposed” to happen. And these are great skills that I think a lot of people could use.

In terms of getting involved in outreach that is done through the Berkeley Lab, we typically require volunteers to be at least an affiliate, and we have a really great volunteer portal for anyone who’s an employee at Berkeley Lab. In this portal, volunteers hear about opportunities throughout the year, whether that’s in the community or K-12 centric.

I would also like to do a plug for community resources for Community Resources for Science, which is based on UC Berkeley’s campus. Here at the Berkeley Lab, we are really big fans of each other and tend to do a lot of work or outreach with them. They have amazing programs like putting scientists into classrooms directly. 

AL: In your view, what are some of the most crucial aspects of K-12 STEM education and policy that you would like to see changed or improved? How can scientists at UC Berkeley and beyond play a role in this?

FD: I’d love to see our country fully support teachers and students financially. COVID revealed many inequalities including those within our education system. Unfortunately, the gap between students from affluent communities and students in under-resourced areas has only grown larger. In my opinion, students should not be punished because they live in a certain zip code and teachers should not have to work several jobs to survive. 

While they may not have the influence to change the entire system, I would encourage scientists to consider working with organizations—or teams like mine—that have programs that prioritize students from underrepresented and under-resourced groups in STEM. We’re working directly with school districts to identify promising students that don’t have a built-in network of adults who know how to navigate a career in STEM. While it’s tempting to work with people you already know, consider holding spaces for students and other researchers that would really benefit from an experience within your lab and/or partnership. 

Faith Dukes, PhD, currently serves as the director of K-12 STEM Education Programs within the Government and Community Relations Office Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Her work is at the intersection of  scientific research, STEM education, policy, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. She has honed her skills as a science communicator and educator in positions at the MIT Museum and as a AAAS Science Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation. She holds a bachelors of science from Spelman College and completed her PhD in physical chemistry studying photocatalytic semiconductors at Tufts University. 

Ana Lyons is a PhD candidate in Integrative Biology in Caroline Williams lab, where her research focuses on the physiology and molecular mechanisms of cold tolerance in tardigrades. She also has a master’s of teaching degree in secondary science education, and she has a passion to help bridge the gap between K-12 science education and academic research.