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Olivia Mullins, Ph.D.

Founder and Executive Director | Science Delivered

Interview: Alexandra Bortnick

Transition: August 2014

Interview: January 2018

1. Please list your previous department at UC San Diego and provide a brief description of the research you conducted?

I was a postdoc in the Department of Neurosciences in Andrew Huberman’s lab. My main project was studying the visual behavior of the cuttlefish and examining cephalopod neural structures.  Ultimately, the expense of maintaining the cuttlefish (like flying in live shrimp from Florida every week) was prohibitive, but it was a fun project while it lasted. 

I left research half-way through 2014 and incorporated Science Delivered shortly after. Science Delivered fully launched in September of 2015.

2. Please describe your current job profile?

Science Delivered is a science education non-profit with the mission of promoting a love of science and learning. We focus on underserved students. Currently, we run the program “It’s Elementary” which provides in-class science labs for K-5 students, an innovative high school program CAPTS (Communication and Presentation Through Science) and, soon, professional development and curriculum for K-5 teachers. 

As Founder and sole staff person in San Diego (we also have a branch in Charlottesville, Virginia), I complete about 90% of the work that needs to be done locally. That includes creating curriculum, teaching "It’s Elementary" and CAPTS, fundraising, networking, recruiting and managing volunteers, organizing community events, accounting, cleaning and more. We have fantastic collaborations with the BioCom Institute, UC San Diego's Upward Bound Math & Science, and STEM Vanguards which helps us have a greater impact than we could alone. We also have a fabulous board and volunteers who help with items like graphic design, blog writing and teaching. And I would be remiss not to mention the support from individual donors and foundations.

I’ve also been lucky to do some side-work that has helped with salary and experience as Science Delivered has been getting off the ground. In spring 2016, I wrote “Experimenting with Science” for a children’s version of Wiley’s “For Dummies” series. In spring 2017, I was hired to write curriculum for another non-profit that focuses on education.

3. What made you decide to transition into your current position?

I enjoyed science and research but a lot of my motivation was socially oriented. When I thought about making my mark in the world, my thoughts tended towards how to help up-and-coming scientists and how to make the world more fair and just. Lifestyle concerns were a factor too, as my husband has a somewhat specialized job. I didn’t want it to come to the point where geography forced us to choose which person got to pursue their career.

One concern I initially had was that teaching science at the elementary level wouldn’t be as stimulating as research. This fear turned out to be unfounded as my job is about as stimulating as you can get. Every day is an adventure. Entrepreneurship can be stressful and uncertain, but it is exhilarating.  I’ve loved the transition more than I even expected.

4. Apart from the research you conducted, do you feel like anything in particular has helped you acquire your current position?

I did a fair amount of outreach after college and in graduate school, which was essential to launching Science Delivered. I volunteered at the Boston Museum of Science, participated in Brain Awareness Week, co-created and taught a weekend course for 2nd and 3rd graders with the University of Virgina’s Curry School of Education, and joined other outreach efforts. 

The skill of grant writing has also translated nicely as we write and submit grant applications routinely at Science Delivered. The time spent learning to write scientific papers has additionally had a big pay-off. The skill of translating and condensing complex ideas into accessible formats (written or oral) is the basis of a lot of the work I do.

5. Please list some of the most striking similarities and differences between your postdoc and current position?

Being self-directed. Running a company, even a small one, requires intrinsic motivation, much like postdoctoral research. Although I answer to our board, no one is looking over my shoulder day-to-day to make sure the work is being completed.

6. Is there any specific challenge (during the entire process of transitioning) that you would like to highlight and, if so, how did you overcome it?

Well, yes, I had no idea what I was doing, business-wise. I kind of imagined I would teach about 75-80% of the time and do the administrative work in-between. That was incredibly naive. But I also knew there was a lot I didn’t know, the “unknown unknowns,” if you will. I have been soaking up as much as possible for the past 3-4 years. Various professional development endeavors along with recruitment of board members who have business experience has been essential. 

7. Please describe your goals and ambitions for the next 5 years?

My goals for Science Delivered have only grown as we’ve had success with our initial programs. In five years, I hope to have 2-4 people employed in San Diego and a steady and sustainable income stream in both San Diego and Charlottesville, VA (where two graduate students have started a branch). 

Mission-wise, which is really the most important, I hope that Science Delivered has a positive and real effect on science education in both San Diego and Charlottesville. Our CAPTS program teaches teens to teach science and engage in community science outreach. I hope to have CAPTS installed in multiple high schools/communities, and I hope other programs outside of science mimic the model we’ve created. Lastly, I hope that Science Delivered is able to support teachers and influence K-5 science education nationwide by providing teachers with free curriculum that addresses their actual classroom needs. 

8. What do you feel you could have done more, as a postdoc, to help prepare you for or acquire your current position?

Learned business skills and done more networking. Learned more about research on child development and best educational practices. 

9. What do you feel is the most important advice you can give to a current UCSD postdoc in order for them to obtain a position such as yours?

For those interested in science education outreach, volunteer as much as possible and learn as much as you can about our public school system and the current science education efforts locally and nationally. Learn how to teach and communicate with young kids and teens, and adults who aren’t well-versed in science.  If your goal is to work with children, learn about child development and study kid’s science activities online and go to STEM community events (there are a lot in San Diego). Join the San Diego STEM Ecosystem. If your goal is science communication for adults, learn how people learn, and study the techniques of success in the field.  Make a serious effort to cultivate the knowledge and skills that you would need for these jobs. And network, of course. Personally, I’d be happy to chat with those looking to make the transition to education. 

In terms of non-profit entrepreneurship, starting a non-profit is a lot like having a baby, which are two things I did at about the same time. Both are pretty easy to get started, but are an enormous amount of work to raise and grow the right way. Running Science Delivered has been both exhilarating and exhausting, so if you are considering entrepreneurship, make sure it’s the life you want.