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Uncovering Vocation – Vocation Favors the Prepared Mind (or “How I Got to Augsburg”) Dr. Jennifer Bankers-Fulbright

Uncovering Vocation is a partnership between Campus Ministry and the Christensen Center for Vocation at Augsburg University. Every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month, a member of the Augsburg community is invited to share a component of their vocation story. It has become a way of building community, becoming reacquainted with one another, and celebrating the diversity of people and vocations that make Augsburg University the beautiful place it is.

On September 12, 2023 Dr. Jennifer Bankers-Fulbright from Augsburg’s biology department shared her story, “Vocation Favors the Prepared Mind (or ‘How I Got to Augsburg’)”. Enjoy a video of her talk and the transcript below.

Vocation Favors the Prepared Mind (or “How I Got to Augsburg”)

by Dr. Jennifer Bankers-Fulbright, Biology

If you ask any scientist how they became a scientist or any university professor how they became a university professor, the vast majority will say they don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. That is not my origin story.   When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up when I was little, I gave them a whole list: singer, dancer, actress, mother, (and when my mom told me I could check boy careers too) fireman, doctor, police man – I checked all the boxes Except scientist. Or teacher. 

And this continued, though not with much thought, throughout my childhood until …at the end of 9th grade, I knew exactly what my ultimate goal was – my vocation.  It was time to register for HS classes, and my future was spelled out in all the electives that were now available to me, a high schooler!! Finally!! The next 3 years were going to be amazing, because I was going to register for every elective that would prepare me for my chosen career: THEATER!

I giddily gave my 10th grade registration form to my parents to sign, and family lore recreates this moment like this: 

Me: “Here’s what I’m taking in high school next year! Isn’t it great?!”

Parents:  “Hahaha! No.”

Apparently,. I would be taking math and science all 3 years of high school to ensure “I don’t close any doors” with regards to where I went to college and what I wanted to do with my life.  My parents said “You need to be prepared for any choice you ultimately want to make”  There were tears, there was pouting, and there was acceptance…because I was 14.

The next year, in the 10th grade biology class that my parents made me take, my teacher Mr. Mitsch changed my life. He told my class a story about genetic diseases and genetic counseling and ethical conundrums and caring for people and I was transformed. I still love the theater, but my dream now was GENETIC COUNSELOR. I would help people understand the biology behind their genetic disease and help them with perhaps the most difficult decisions in their lives. 10th grade; life figured out.

From that moment on, I’ve been fascinated with biology — especially biology related to human health. 🙂 Long story short: I went to college to get a biology degree on my way to being a genetic counselor. I chose a liberal arts school (College Saint Benedict – I’m not completely giving up theater!) and, during my time there, I did a summer internship — what we would call an Augsburg Experience — and discovered I loved doing research. I switched my long-term focus from counseling patients to eradicating disease via biomedical research and switched my focus from genetics to immunology, largely because of the HIV pandemic that was in full swing at that time.

To be a researcher, I needed a Ph.D.  I ended up having to decide between: the University of Chicago and Mayo Graduate School at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. They were both great programs, and I loved Chicago, but Chicago required me to teach undergraduates to earn some of my stipend/payment.  Mayo did not.  I had no, absolutely no, positively no interest in teaching in any form. I chose Mayo.

Parents: Are you sure? What if you find out you like it? Like biology in 10th grade? Maybe you’ll find you really enjoy it.

Me: Hahahahahahaha. No.

Narrator: This decision, at 21 years old, marks the beginning of Jennifer’s avoidance of discovering her vocation 🙂 Yet, as you’ll soon hear, it kept finding her.

During graduate school, I got to be a mentor for the first time – to an immunology professor from St. Olaf, Ted Johnson (spoiler alert – he graduated from Augsburg). This man was beloved by his students – he was living his vocation as a professor. As we worked together and I trained him on the new techniques my lab was doing, he asked whether I had ever considered teaching, because I seemed to have a real knack for it – he thought I would be great in the classroom. 

My response: Hahahahahahaha. No.

I got my Ph.D. and moved to a different lab to do research on asthma and allergies. My new boss, Jerry Gleich, M.D. saw me present scientific articles and results several times and often complimented me on my “gift” for being able to explain complicated ideas very clearly – he asked if I had ever considered teaching since I seemed to have a gift for it.

My response: Hahahahahaha. No.

I began working with SURF students (undergraduates doing summer research) and LOVED it.  They told me they would love to have a professor like me – did I ever think I would work at a University and mentor students in research there?

My response: Hahahahahahahah. No.

During this time, I also began volunteering with local elementary schools, the Rochester and MN State science fairs for middle and high school students, I was asked to lead a course in the Immunology graduate school program and be part of the teaching group in the immunology course taken by first year medical and grad students. I gave research talks at MN colleges (CSB, St. Olaf) and always connected with students and faculty.  I was promoted to an Assistant Professor of Medicine because of my work at Mayo, and  I seemed to really be drawn to (and good at) this whole education thingy-ma-bob. But I still saw that as “giving back” — I was a research scientist who could communicate, hooray!  People continued to ask me if I’d ever considered teaching, and my response slowly turned from laughter and denial to…maybe? For somebody who said they would never teach I do seem to do a lot of it don’t I? . 

So I started looking at all my “volunteer” activities differently — had I been seeking out TEACHING activities? Why did I love working with my summer research college students so much? Why did I get more “warm fuzzies” from my volunteer activities than my research, which I also loved doing?? Had I been moving toward teaching all along, despite my best efforts to avoid it??!!

My response: Huh….am I supposed to be a…teacher???

Soon after this, I “snuck” into an education workshop for college professors of immunology (I was at the same meeting presenting my research). You know that feeling when you find “your people”? This was that. It was during the flight home from that meeting, when I happened to be sitting next to one of the professors that was in that education group, that – at 35,000 feet, I discovered my true vocation: teaching.

It took me another 5 years to figure out who and where I wanted to teach (undergraduates, at a liberal arts college in a city) and to develop my college teaching skills (and it requires a LOT of skills!). I taught a course at Carleton College, I left Mayo and taught full time at RCTC the community college, and I continued to grow in my abilities and become more and more convinced this is what I was meant to do.  When permanent positions opened up for a biology professor at a liberal arts college with a commitment to student research in (or very near) a city, I applied. But it wasn’t until I interviewed at Augsburg that things really clicked for me. And it wasn’t the campus or even the city that drew me in: it was the students I met.

They were different from the students I’d talked with during interviews at other campuses. They knew what they needed or wanted from their professors, they challenged me and asked how I would provide that if I were hired. They talked about challenges they faced and what were my thoughts on issues that directly impacted them. I was in love. These were also my people. I left Augsburg that day knowing this was my teaching home and hoping they knew it too. Thankfully they did — and I started teaching biology here in Fall 2008, 13 years after I earned my Ph.D. I was using my Ph.D. for the one thing I was sure I would never use it for: teaching. 

So what’s my advice to help you find your vocation? I’ve stolen it from one of my graduate school professors, Dr. Vanda Lennon. One day she casually asked me what my plans were after I graduated. I said I wasn’t really sure and asked her if she had any advice on choosing. I expected a list of things to do, maybe a reprimand that I didn’t know what to do already, but she didn’t say any of that. She said “Don’t worry. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do. Just keep moving toward what you love to do, and eventually you’ll find your path.” And  she was exactly right — I kept moving toward what I loved for those 13 years…and I found my vocation here at Augsburg, waiting for me.