On being a STEM enthusiast who is not a STEM professional

Photo by Greg Rakozy

I am a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) enthusiast who is not a STEM professional; and I am proud of it.

Yet, I would have hesitated to say so an year ago.

I grew up in a place and time where STEM professions like Engineering or Medicine were coveted. For multiple reasons, I decided to pursue a business management career. But, STEM- especially pure sciences — always interested and inspired me. Given my own preconceived notions, I felt that a ‘STEM enthusiast who does not work in the STEM field’ is an oxymoron. All that changed last year.

To be candid, I studied mathematics as a major in my undergrad school, can code in half a dozen computer languages and have also been a technical product manager recently. So, I am no stranger to STEM. But if ‘STEM’ were to wed ‘Business’, I would be attending the party from the Business’ side…. I consider myself a business professional.

In 2015, I found two very fulfilling ways to stay involved with STEM, beyond reading about STEM topics:

  1. Volunteering at the Cleantech Open (CTO) event
  2. Re-learning and teaching STEM topics to my elementary school-aged kid

In both these instances, I felt a win-win/ give-and-take connection to STEM.

Volunteering at Cleantech Open

Cleantech Open is a not-for-profit organization that runs the world’s largest accelerator for cleantech startups. In Nov 2015, they held Cleantech Open Global Forum in SF bay area, a 2-day event where finalists from US and countries across the world showcased their cleantech products/ solutions and competed to win prizes, recognition and bragging rights. I had volunteered to help international (non-US) contestants refine and practice their presentation and pitch before they faced the judging panel and met Venture Capitalists (VCs).

I knew that my business experience could help the cleantech entrepreneurs. Some of the cleantech entrepreneurs came well-equipped and just needed a friendly face to calm their nerves and boost their confidence before their presentation. In other cases, the entrepreneurs needed advice on communicating the potential of their solution/ product in a simple yet compelling way. This was especially true when the entrepreneur was from academia or English was not spoken widely in their country.

I equally benefited from this experience. I learned about the existence of a new ecofriendly, energy-efficient way to pasteurize liquids (from AseptoRay), an innovative (patent-pending) product/solution to clean up contaminated water (from GloNaTech), waste heat recovery solutions for industrial and commercial applications (from Promethean Energy), an eco-friendly and energy-efficient way to harvest micro algae for bio-diesel, nutritional product production (from MASS) and a few more! What’s even better, I learned that several bay area VCs focused on cleantech products.

Just learning about all this cleantech effort around the world lifted my spirits in a strange way. And I was glad that I could use my non-STEM skills to further this purpose in some small way.

Re-learning and teaching STEM topics to my kid

Whether we acknowledge it or not, our interests and actions as adults inadvertently influence the interests of children (or impressionable young members) in our family. So, this past year, I tried to find ways to involve my child in my STEM interests.

  • It may have been finding STEM discovery moments during our daily grind (“Do you want to see a plant sprouting from of an onion?”).
  • Or asking questions and learning from the kid (“How many dwarf planets do we have in our solar system?”).
  • Or sharing something I learned/ created (“Want to see this computer program do <something interesting>?”).
  • Or something as simple as watching a movie (‘The Martian’) or a program (‘Planet Earth’) together and answering questions.
The best part of this experience has been that I got to re-learn/ remind myself several fascinating facts about pure sciences that I had taken for granted over the years.

And one day when looking at the moon, my kid asks, “Why do we see the same sight of moon every day? Does it not rotate?” And I felt elated knowing that somewhere along the way, I may have contributed to that curiosity.

To be or not to be a STEM enthusiast

When technology is ubiquitous in our daily lives, it’s natural to lose curiosity about the “how” of this technology. But with so many interesting STEM developments underway concerning our body (e.g., new cancer treatments that use our own immune system), our planet (e.g., energy-efficient solutions), and our ‘neighborhood’ (e.g., space exploration, commercial space travel), I prefer to remain a STEM enthusiast in the foreseeable future.

Last year, I realized I could enjoy the substance and content of STEM topics for its own sake — without trying to question its use/utility. I found ways to share my enthusiasm with the next generation (and hope that it encourages their curiosity and interest in STEM). I learned that I can contribute to STEM, even if it was in some small way, without being a STEM professional.

At times, I am glad that I am a STEM enthusiastic who is not a STEM professional. After all, this optimal amount of ignorance allows me to enjoy (good) sci-fi movies blissfully, without an internal debate about the the feasibility for the story line.

(Author is the founder and CEO of S2E consulting, a strategy and consulting firm that helps financial services incumbents evolve during industry disruption)

Originally published at www.linkedin.com.