As part of the University’s outreach programs, I was invited a few years ago to speak to a group of students at a high school in Portland about my profession and the field of electron microscopy. I decided, however, that rather than speaking to this narrow topic I would be doing a better beneficial service for these students if I spoke to them in a more general way about career paths and options in the broader area of instrument based analysis. My audience was, after all, at a place in their lives where thinking about education beyond high school and future career choices was probably a frequent activity.

When asked for a title for my talk, I suggested “Blowing Things Up”. Inasmuch as the 9-11 attacks and their aftermath were still much on the minds of everyone, the hostess for this invitation questioned my suggestion. I explained to her the intent of my talk would be to show how scientific and technical disciplines examine the fundamental nature, properties, and processes of the cosmos by magnification and dissection and made the argument that the suggested title both correctly conveyed that message and at the same time might evoke curiosity about the talk in our perspective audience. Eventually we reached agreement and the title was accepted.

Approximately eighty people attended the talk. Light and electron microscopy were discussed, but so were particle accelerators, a wide range of spectrometry and chromatographic methodologies, mechanical testing devices, and a variety of astronomical telescopes. All of these tools and methods “blow things up” in one sense or another, making what is small or distant or extraordinarily complex more “visible”, either directly or indirectly, so we may better understand the fundamental nature, properties, and processes of the cosmos.

The subject seemed well received and appeared to have provided some new or different perspectives and insights into the subject of instrument based analysis in members of the audience, as judged by both the amount of note-taking during the presentation and the questions and comments offered from the audience at the conclusion of the talk.

Although few of us may be able to accurately assess the eventual long-term impacts of our educational, outreach, and service activities, our ability to offer insights and suggest options to the groups and individuals we encounter during our careers may be one of the most valuable but least visible “commodities” our programs, or a university, bring to others. Opportunities such as this chance to speak to a group of high school students seem to be one way of making these sorts of impacts – well – just a bit more visible.

Al Soeldner

This article was published in Posies & Pathogens, fourteenth edition, page 8, 2003, within the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology.