Amy Strauss '05 Returns to Make Science Fun at MA as MARC Coordinator and Science Teacher

Let’s begin with the most exciting news—you have returned to Marin Academy, this time as a faculty member! Welcome back and congratulations! You’ve joined the extraordinary faculty of MA as the MARC Coordinator and Science Teacher. What made you decide to return to your alma mater as a faculty member?

I am thrilled to be back at MA in this new capacity. As a student, I found MA to be a really energizing place to think and grow and explore, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn in this type of environment during my teenage years. While I’ve always felt supported by the MA community, I certainly did not expect to come back! What drew me back was a really innovative Signature Program that MA launched in 2017, the Marin Academy Research Collaborative (MARC). This two-year, multidisciplinary program supports genuine student engagement with cutting-edge scientific research. I learned about this program through the MA alumni network. At the time, I was teaching science to college students, and I was feeling frustrated by what seemed to me to be a deficit in general scientific literacy, even among college science majors. The idea of a program at the high school level that allows students to follow their curiosity and participate authentically in the process of science got me excited. When I heard that the Program Coordinator was leaving MA, I jumped at the opportunity to apply for this role.

After graduating from MA in 2005, you went off to Whitman College where you got your BA in biology and environmental studies before embarking on a Ph.D. in organismic and evolutionary biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. What drew you to science, and did MA have any part in inspiring your journey?

Interestingly, I think what drew me to science in the first place is actually the opposite of what I have come to love about it! I was drawn to science for what I perceived to be its clarity and objectivity. I preferred calculations to creativity, and felt safe within the confines of logic and reason. I liked knowing if an answer was ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ As it turns out, science is an incredibly creative pursuit! And that’s what gets me excited about it now. Scientific advancement is about forging ahead into the unknown by asking questions that have never been asked before. It demands thinking outside of the box to come up with innovative approaches for tackling complex problems. Data are messy, and sometimes they do not show a clear pattern or relationship—that doesn’t mean that the scientific process is flawed, rather that nature’s complexity has been revealed, and new questions can now be asked. There is a freedom that accompanies the logic of scientific inquiry, and I find that convergence invigorating. In asking every individual to think, question, and create, the MA mission statement encapsulates this idea beautifully. 

Throughout your years of school and after graduating, you did some teaching and lecturing in higher education. What do you enjoy about teaching and how does teaching college differ from teaching high school? 

I learn so much from working with students, and every day presents new challenges and new opportunities. As soon as I started teaching and mentoring students in science, it felt like a meaningful way for me to effect change both at an individual level and eventually at a broader societal level. I feel it's equally important to support and empower innovative thinkers who go on to pursue science professionally and to foster an understanding of and an appreciation for science among those who will not go on to pursue science professionally. Science is a crucial tool that can help us address the many complex challenges currently facing humanity, and it’s intertwined with powerful societal forces like economics, politics, technology, and ethics. Both scientists and the general public are implicated. Educating members of our society is a great privilege and a great responsibility that I take seriously, and this feeling is only deepened in transitioning from teaching college students to teaching high-school students.

You are the eighth alum to be currently working at MA! Is it strange working at your alma mater with some of your former teachers that are now your colleagues? What have you enjoyed most about being back at MA?

It’s pretty fun to have a community of alumni working at MA, representing different eras in the history of the school. There’s a feeling of connection among us, which is a support as I’m embarking on a new and demanding job. And while it is a bit of a strange feeling to return, it’s pretty easy for me to separate my experience as a student and my experience as a teacher. For one thing, the amazing new Science and Innovation Center where I spend nearly all of my time did not even exist when I was a student! The cafeteria is in a different place, the library is in another new building that wasn’t here when I was a student, assemblies take place in a different spot… and the program I’m now running wasn’t around either. So, it all feels pretty fresh...with a hint of nostalgia. The most notable throwback is that I'm team-teaching Advanced Biology with Liz Gottlieb, who was my teacher for the same course many years ago! And I did go on to become a biologist, so I owe a lot to Liz. It’s been so much fun to collaborate with her in this new way and to see how much the curriculum has changed and grown over the years. And I can’t help but look at my students and wonder whether I could be colleagues with them twenty years from now!

What have you enjoyed most being back in the Bay Area?

I left the Bay Area for college in 2005 and lived away until moving back just this year. While I had some great adventures experiencing small town Walla Walla, WA and big city NYC, the Bay Area is where I’m most comfortable and it’s a breath of fresh air to be back. I’m grateful to be near more family, near more green space, and in a place that doesn’t freeze over for many months of the year. Also, I’m living in San Francisco near fellow 2005 MA graduate Lauren Meisel, and we try to meet up on Ocean Beach at sunset as often as possible (when the fog isn’t too dense)—that’s been a blast!

What advice would you give an alum and/or student based on your life experiences?

Stay meaningfully connected to the people and the places that support and uplift you. Support and uplift others. Follow your genuine interests, and be open to where they lead you. Work towards aligning your actions with your values. Release yourself from the burden of others’ expectations; craft thoughtful, powerful expectations for yourself and focus your energy there. Take seriously the responsibility that comes with being a member of our society, and contribute authentically. Understand how science works and its role in society—be a scientifically informed community member!

 

Amy Strauss '05 - school ID and staff photo side-by-side

Thank you, Amy, for taking the time to do this Q&A! We are thrilled to have you back on campus, and the current students are incredibly lucky to be able to learn from you. 

What are you up to? If you’re a MA alum and would like to be interviewed, please reach out to Heather Sammons, Director of Alumni Engagement, at hsammons@ma.org.