Dr. Brooke Haag’s Journey from Teaching Physics to STEM Evangelism

Brooke Haag, PhD

Dr. Brooke Haag has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Sonoma State University, a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of California, Davis, and a master of education degree from Harvard University. After completing her doctorate, Brooke taught physics for many years, first as a physics instructor at Hartnell College and then as an assistant professor at American River College. Last year she made the jump to private industry and is currently a senior business development manager at Microsoft. Brooke recently took the time to speak with me about her unusual career experiences and share her advice to current undergraduate and graduate students:

Matt: Hi, Brooke. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. How are you?

Brooke: Good. Other than I’m living in Seattle, so it’s a bit cloudy this time of year, a bit dreary, not California for sure, but I can’t complain.

Matt: My wife did her graduate work at the University of Washington, so we know what it’s like. Moving to Seattle was part of your new job as a senior business development manager at Microsoft?

Brooke: Right.

Matt: What’s working as a senior business development manager like?

Brooke: Another way to describe my role is a STEM evangelist. Basically, I work at headquarters for Microsoft as someone that thinks through the various STEM initiatives going on. I’ll give you an example. We have something great called Hacking STEM, and it’s a series of experiments that one of the product teams have come up with. It’s got a bunch of goodness baked in. In these four experiments they’ve come up with they use very basic materials to construct instruments.

The latest lesson was how to make a robotic hand. They used Velostat, which is a pretty cheap plastic, copper tape, and cardboard. Anyhow, it’s an interesting initiative, and my job is to work closely with them to think about how we make this known to the world, what teachers need; how we help teachers with this; how we message this to them; how we get them in the loop. It’s a lot about how we land this in education so that it is of use. That’s one part of my job.

Another part of my job is having an opinion on anything that touches STEM from our global perspective. For instance, right now we have the Microsoft Educator Community. This is a place where teachers sign up, and they can get certified in skills. They can contribute lessons. They can chat with each other. It’s multifaceted. We have right now a presence on the Educator Community that we’ll need to iterate. I mentioned Hacking STEM, how does Hacking STEM play, what kind of presence will it have on this Educator Community?

I think through anything that touches STEM. Right now, there are a lot of things that touch STEM, so my job is busy for sure. Does that give you a little bit of perspective about the things I’m wondering about in my current role?

Matt: Yes, it absolutely does. I would like to take it back to the beginning a little bit. You’re there today, but way back when you were an undergraduate, you started out in physics. You also did graduate school in physics. What led you to physics in the first place?

Brooke: I started out at a community college, Hartnell College in Salinas. I needed a physical science class. I signed up for physics, and I ended up with a really wonderful professor who ended up being my mentor. I had just planned to take enough physics for whatever major I was considering at that point, and I ended up enjoying physics. I ended up being encouraged by the professor to continue, and I ended up taking all the physics at Hartnell and then transferring to Sonoma State to finish my bachelor’s degree in physics.

Basically, I was just really inspired by the subject and by the professor. I thought, what could be better? I wanted to be a professor someday. I thought, what could be better than knowing everything about the world, being able to explain the world. Certainly, I figured out that once you have a degree in physics, it’s like the start of knowing how much you don’t know. That was basically the seed.

Matt: Okay. You were pretty inspired because you went on and did a graduate degree, a PhD in nuclear physics.

Brooke: I did. I got my PhD in nuclear physics at UC Davis with the nuclear group. I worked on the STAR experiment at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven with my thesis on relativistic heavy ion collisions.

Matt: I saw the title. It’s pretty impressive, “Characterization of Au+Au collisions at sNN = 200 GeV from STAR: From meson production in ultra-peripheral collisions to high-pT azimuthal correlations in central collisions.”

Brooke: That dissertation was an amalgam of work that I had done over the years, so it was a long title because it includes disparate pieces. I drove all the way through graduate school, ended up with my PhD, and then I went back to Hartnell, which is where I started as a student. I taught and ran the physics department there for five years.

Matt: Even though you were going through this pretty technical PhD in nuclear physics, you’d always planned on going back to teaching?

Brooke: Yeah. All along the way in graduate school, I was finding opportunities to teach. I taught a lot of labs. Toward the end of my graduate career I also was a lecturer, so I lectured for some courses. Then I also taught at a local community college in Woodland. Woodland is a city that’s next to Davis. In fact, they had just put together the physics department for Woodland Community College, so I taught those initial classes. That’s what helped me when I started to go out and look for a teaching job at a community college, which is what I wanted because I knew how inspired I had been as a student.

I knew that I wanted to teach college, but I also knew that I wanted the opportunity to focus on teaching versus trying to divide my time between teaching and research, though I will say I did do research while I was teaching at a community college. It’s just that I did it on my own terms. I did it on my own time. I would spend summers doing research. I would do research during winter break. I would participate in a limited way while I was teaching, and so I still maintained research and I still found it a good avenue for students. The connections that I still had to research, I could help place students in opportunities because I was still active in doing research myself.

Matt: Okay. Some people take the path of a master’s in physics with a teaching concentration. How did you view that as opposed to doing a full bore research PhD?

Brooke:  I think that for me, my aspiration was to fulfill the research path, and at that point I didn’t see concentrating on teaching in a formal education way as important to my ultimate career goal. Once I started teaching I understood the landscape of what you could get in terms of focusing on education or that you could get a degree in physics education. I think it was just my lack of understanding of what was out there in terms of degrees, frankly.

I went to graduate school, and I thought, I’m going to get a PhD in physics and then I’m going to use that to go back and teach physics. That’s how I thought of it. I thought that I could get teaching experience along the way that would eventually help me be effective in the classroom, but I didn’t think of it in terms of oh, well, maybe I’ll get a degree in physics education. I thought differently later because I did go back, and I did get a degree from Harvard in education, actually in educational technology, but education was definitely a big part of that, in other words, thinking through what are the grounding theories of education.

If you do get a degree in education, you get to study all of these people who have thought about how do we learn; why do we learn; what’s the magic behind helping people learn as a teacher. I never had that grounding, and I did miss it. I did go back for it at some point, but as maybe your question points out, it would’ve been more effective the first time to think through getting more of a grounding in formal educational theory before I went into the classroom to teach.

I think it was just you’re a bit young when you get into graduate school, and you are single minded. Everyone else around you is doing research, and that’s what you want to do as well. Even if you want to teach, I think people don’t quite understand the complexity of teaching and how they teach. I got into the classroom and really thought about, wow, this is quite difficult and complicated, and there are people that have done a lot of thinking about how to be effective. I didn’t understand that till later.

Matt: It’s definitely a different job than the research job, right?

Brooke: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.

Matt: Clearly, like you described, you’re sort of caught up in that do research and get a PhD mindset. Do you think that that was more about just, like you said, you’re young and that’s the track you’re on, or were the other options not really made known to you as you went through all of this? Was that part of the problem as well?

Brooke: I think it was both of those things. I just didn’t have much awareness. If I think of myself as an undergraduate finishing my degree at Sonoma State, I didn’t have an awareness of how you could go after education about education, for lack of a better way of saying it. Also, being in physics, people around you, professors, your peers, all the messaging is really, of course you want to go be a professor, but first you get your PhD in physics and that drives your career.

Because it’s been a long time since I’ve been in physics graduate school, I don’t know if the messaging around that has changed, but at that point it was like well, you get your PhD in physics and then you go do your academic career. You go be a professor. That’s the track, so there wasn’t a lot of alternative messaging.

Matt: Right. Now, of course that track only works out for a very small percentage of us.

Brooke: It’s true, but we all think it’s going to work out for us.

Matt: Yeah. But it did sort of work out in your case. At one point after you were at Hartnell, you became an assistant professor at a place called American River College, right?

Brooke: That’s right. I spent five years at Hartnell, and I wanted a different opportunity. I thought it was interesting, but American River had a big department for a community college, seven full-time physics professors, physics astronomy.

Matt: Wow, that is big.

Brooke: Yeah. It’s quite expansive. Because of my experience at UC Davis, I knew I loved Sacramento. I thought it would be a great opportunity to move to a different school and see things from a different perspective. I did move to American River for a couple of years, and then I decided if I look at the sum total of seven years, that’s about the time when you start to think about a sabbatical when you’re in academia. Also, I felt like things were getting a bit stale, and I wanted a little bit of a change, to take some time and to think about where I wanted to go in my career.

That’s when I decided after a couple years at American River to take a leave. I went to Harvard for a year to the Graduate School of Education, and they had a great program, the TIE Program, Technology, Innovation and Education Program. Basically it’s a degree in educational technology, so you get to think about what’s going on out there with respect to educational technology. It’s huge. It’s expansive.

There are many moving parts. You get the opportunity to really connect personally with what’s going on. A lot of opportunity, so bringing external folks into the school so that we could see all the amazing stuff going on. Then we have of course professors who are really connected and in the know. You get courses that are really relevant and also courses that are relevant to the body of knowledge around education.

That’s what you don’t get when you’re doing a degree in physics. You don’t get an awareness of educational pedagogy that you can leverage later in your teaching. You might go after it later on your own, but that’s the thing that I felt was always missing for me is I had instincts and I had experience and those things were informed by teaching, but I never had any formal background to tell me that what I was doing made sense. I knew it worked, or it didn’t work and then I would revise it, but I always was wondering, well, what’s out there in terms of who has formalized these theories of education; what are the theories of education; am I adhering to them; is what I’m doing consistent?

It was a great experience for me to really evaluate what I had been doing as a teacher, as an educator, against what best practices are, and then also that extra added layer of all the exciting stuff that’s currently going on in education with respect to technology. I got a grounding in design thinking. I took a great class called Designing for Learning by Creating, so really thinking about constructivism, so lots of really great stuff. I think as a teacher going through formal education for teaching you get that training, but I didn’t get it in my physics education. So, I went back, and I got it.

Matt: This actually comes up a lot. A physics degree teaches you a subject. It doesn’t necessarily teach you a profession, right?

Brooke:  Right. It’s sort of interesting in terms of even if you do go into a more traditional research position, a degree in physics, again, really prepares you to think critically and yeah, you do take a deep dive into a particular subject, you become a real expert at, for me, ultra-peripheral collisions in heavy ion physics. That’s my one area of expertise, but around that you acquire a lot of skills and things. I guess the thing I would also say is that it doesn’t necessarily prepare you for a profession, to your point, because there’s so much managing of people in a profession.

When I was running the physics department at Hartnell, I also ended up running the Physics Club. I have a club, and there are officers. How do you get them excited, and how do you get them driving initiatives; how do you help mentor people that would be great to drive the club forward? Then I think about my colleagues. How do I help them understand what I’m doing and why they should support me?

The lab tech for the science department at that point, or I’ll say the physics-engineering lab tech, amazing guy, how do I manage that relationship so that I’m supporting him and he’s supporting me? It’s interesting to think about what kind of personal skills are required to be successful in a professional position, and you certainly don’t get that necessarily with a degree in physics.

Matt: Absolutely. That’s pretty much why we’re talking today, that chain of events and the shortcoming of physics education in preparing physicists for successful careers. There’s a lot of people eager to get those gaps filled in. Now, clearly something transpired between your leave of absence from American River College to earn your degree at Harvard and your present position at Microsoft. So, how did that unfold?

Brooke:  After I left Harvard, I got an opportunity to work with a company that deploys online education. It’s a company called ExtensionEngine, and they’re in Cambridge. They work closely with, among other folks, MIT. I mention MIT because I worked on a couple of accounts for MIT. Basically, I got the opportunity to jump in as an instructional designer to learn the edX platform to design and deploy massive online courses. It just happens that this opportunity popped up.

It was interesting to me to try to leverage my knowledge about education as an educator but also all this brand new shiny stuff I had just learned at Harvard in the context of the real world. I had never been outside of academia in terms of employment, so it was really attractive to me to try to do something that was outside of academia in a way. We certainly collaborated with professors and subject matter experts and things, so it was still related but different from the perspective that I learned in teaching. That was the first opportunity that came up.

Matt: What was the attractive part about that versus going back to your professorship, the novelty?

Brooke: Yeah. Cambridge is kind of an exciting place in general, Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are so many schools there. It’s such a hub of innovation around education, of culture, and not even Cambridge but rather I’ll just say Boston. It’s so expansive. There’s so much going on there. I had never personally been on the East Coast. I knew that once I came back to the West Coast I was not going back to the East Coast, so I decided for personal and professional reasons that it would be interesting to try something new and to stick it out a little longer on the East Coast and see what Boston had to offer.

I had actually just started the job as an internship. Did part-time work, and I got up to speed with the company. The people were so great and the position was so interesting that I decided to join full time. That was the trajectory. I don’t know if it was as much an active decision to leave the old job as much as it was to embrace the new opportunities coming my way. I did that for eight months, and then a friend of mine from Harvard connected me with Microsoft. You mentioned at the beginning of our call that my job title is senior business development manager.

She forwarded me the opportunity, and I said, “Gosh, I don’t know. This doesn’t necessarily sound like a good fit. It’s, you know, sales and business. I’m, you know, I’m a teacher. I know physics. I’m a physicist. I’m a scientist. I’m a teacher. I’m not sure.” Then she said, “Well, let’s talk.” She framed it more as a STEM evangelist, so again the idea that physics touches STEM in Microsoft’s Worldwide Education, but I get to play a role, that I get to have an opinion, that I get to drive initiatives. I thought, well, why not? Why not at least apply and see where it goes?

I ended up having a wonderful conversation with the woman who is currently my manager. They brought me out to Redmond, and I met a lot of great people who I would get to collaborate with. I saw the things that were going on at Microsoft, and it opened my eyes to a completely new possibility. Again, being uninformed and a bit naïve about what’s going outside of academia, I thought it was a really interesting opportunity. I just jumped. It seemed like a great fit. The people seemed wonderful. It’s been a huge opportunity.

It’s incredibly complex in some ways because when you’re dealing with a company like Microsoft, they’re in 190 countries. You might have a great idea, but if it doesn’t scale to 190 countries, we’re not necessarily going to be able to amplify it, so thinking through the puzzles of how do we help teachers in STEM; what’s Microsoft’s perspective in STEM? There’s some obvious things that the T in STEM makes a lot of sense for us, but do we have anything else to say about STEM? I think we do, and we’re thinking through that right now. It’s been a huge, really interesting opportunity. I think Microsoft in education is doing some great stuff, and I’m excited to be a part of that.

Matt: Brooke, you have a really incredible story. I’m glad you were able to take the time to share it.

Brooke: Thank you for giving me the opportunity.

Matt: For the wrap up, is there any one thing that you would like to tell all the folks behind us who are still in undergraduate or graduate school, one golden piece of career advice that you could give out?

Brooke: I would say that often people who have really interesting, amazing careers didn’t really have a plan. They just went in directions that seemed interesting for them. They followed their instinct. Certainly, if you’re in school and you think you want to be a professor, absolutely pursue that, but I would also say that you should try to get to know yourself to understand what your strengths are and what you really care about, and you should pursue those things.

I’m thinking of a conversation that I had with someone who, I would say, wants to go to graduate school, and this is actually not in physics but a different subject, but wants to go to graduate school and maybe wants to go to graduate school because everybody in the family went to graduate school. That’s the path, and that’s what you do. At the end of the day when I was talking to her, she said her passion is nature, and she would like to drive a nonprofit.

To my mind, maybe graduate school is the right thing to do before that, but if you know what you want to do, gosh, why not drive that? Why not jump into the thing that you’re passionate about and start pursuing that? Why put it off? I think physics is a wonderful trajectory. It will set you up to do a lot of things. Being open to the opportunities that are out there and being able to know yourself well enough to know what the things are that you care about, maybe things that are outside physics, and how to bring those things together is maybe going to lead you to a fruitful career.

I don’t know. I think people in my position, in other words, when I was an undergraduate years ago, folks that are undergraduates right now probably have a lot more awareness and probably are open a lot more to the idea of changing jobs more often. I thought I was going to sign up to be a professor at Hartnell for 35 years and call it good. I don’t know. I’m not sure exactly how I decided to pivot away from that plan, but it wasn’t easy for me. I’m guessing that people younger than me right now just anticipate that they’re going to change jobs and have a windy path on the career path.

Matt: That’s certainly what usually happens.

Brooke: I think it does, so being prepared for it is probably best.

Matt: Thank you very much, Brooke. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Brooke: Absolutely. It’s been lovely to chat. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my story for whatever lessons it can provide.