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The Accidental Scientist: Two Degrees = One Intriguing Career

Jody Arthur
2002 Alumna, M.S. Geology, School of Science 
Indiana Department of Environmental Management

Jody Arthur
"It was like learning how to see all over again — it's a whole new way to understand the world around us."

Once upon a time, Jody Arthur expected to spend her career looking for facts under every rock for the news stories she'd write as a budding Woodward or Bernstein.

But a decision to add an English degree to go with the journalism degree she was earning from IUPUI took her on a little detour.

And her new path turned the Bloomington native and nontraditional student into a self-described "accidental scientist" who now works for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM, for short) in the office of water quality.

And in a bit of irony not lost on the 46-year-old Arthur, one of her many tasks as a senior environmental manager is to gather facts and report them to the public — usually through journalists.

"I guess I've always liked the idea of keeping my two degrees married," she laughs.

Summer study turns to love

Arthur's path from IUPUI to IDEM was circuitous, to say the least. She earned a bachelor's degree from the IU School of Journalism in 1998 as expected, but before completing that work, decided to expand her options by earning a second degree in English.

"But that required some science, so I wound up taking a summer course in geology," Arthur recalls. It didn't take long before she was hooked. "It was like learning how to see all over again," she adds. "It's a whole new way to understand the world around us!"

For an ardent outdoor enthusiast, the lure of learning the history of the world as told by rocks — and the rest of Mother Nature's posse — was irresistible. Better still, Arthur found that not only did she have an interest in the field, she had an aptitude for it. She wasn't ready to give up journalism — she enjoys writing too much for that — but she was curious where geology might lead.

Then she met Lenore Tedesco. Arthur calls the Purdue School of Science faculty member, veteran environmental researcher and head of the Center for Earth and Environmental Sciences (CEES) "a human dynamo" and an extraordinary teacher.

Tedesco "knows how to excite your imagination, when to challenge you, and how to create a good research experience for graduate students who will need that skill as they move through their careers," Arthur says. That imagination and enthusiasm led Arthur to a master's degree in geology in 2002.

Dual backgrounds

The skills Arthur acquired throughout her IUPUI careers — both of them — have served her well as part of the state's agency overseeing environmental impact.

In journalism, she honed her "ability to listen. I don't think any discipline teaches its students how to listen quite so well as journalism," Arthur says, and credited teachers like James Brown (the school's outgoing executive associate dean) with helping her master the skill. "It's crucial if you're going to get a story right, and I find the same skill helps me find key information in my day-to-day work."

Another key skill from journalism is multitasking.

"Time management is a big key for me," Arthur says. "My job comes at me from so many different directions." Her science training has played a pivotal role, too.

"Doing research at IUPUI, I learned how to gather a lot of information, then organize it in order to develop conclusions, something I do all the time for the state," Arthur says. One problem: the amounts of information can be massive. Sometimes, Arthur says, "you just need to lock yourself in a room and think about it all."

A big share of her IDEM time is spent maintaining Indiana's database of water quality assessments. That information is the foundation of reports on water quality problems throughout the state, a report she releases every two years. But she also finds herself supporting other parts of the office. "I feel a little like I'm a traffic cop" on the information highway, she laughs.

For a long time, Arthur admits feeling like "I had to apologize" for having a journalism background in a science-based setting. "Then I met with some people from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in Cincinnati, and one of them told me something that really hit home," Arthur says. "He said ‘you can teach a writer the science, but you can't teach a scientist to write.' That's when I realized that I needed to stop apologizing for my (journalism) background and start using it to my advantage!"

Her dual perspectives occasionally clash.

"I get a little peeved at the state of science in journalism," Arthur says. "So much is focused on that narrow list of things that are wrong, and so little attention is paid to the things people are doing right. We need to know that we're accomplishing things along the way, if only to encourage ourselves that we can reach our goals." That's why she always tries to leaven the water quality report with success stories. "They don't get picked up as much," she admits with a chuckle, "but once in a while ..."

Connected to campus

IUPUI is still a daily part of Arthur's life. Husband Jack is a graduate (BA in General Studies in 2000) and is a computer support specialist for the School of Medicine's biochemistry and molecular biology department, and oldest son Isaac graduated from the Herron School of Art & Design this spring. And she maintains ties to many of the people who helped shape her professional life.

"IUPUI is made for people like me, people who want to explore new options to careers, or change the direction of their lives," she says. "Some people outside the university used to think the adjunct faculty here were a drawback, but I've found that they understand the material in very different ways. They use it in their work lives, and they're able to pass that (experience) along to students who get a real-life perspective!"

She believes the wide array of certificate programs offered at IUPUI contributes greatly to professional life in the city and throughout the state. "They help people keep up with changes in the field, to keep learning and growing," Arthur says.

"IUPUI is much more nimble than most any other campus," Arthur adds. "That's crucial these days, because the time of 30-year or lifetime work careers is pretty much over. IUPUI caters to people in transition, and it constantly helps graduates hit the ground running."

Her own academic career path exemplifies the campus's dual nature: she earned one degree from an IU school (Journalism) and another from a Purdue school (Science), and is not far from adding that English degree that changed the course of her life about a decade back.

"Being an urban university, there is constant cross-pollination going on," says Arthur. "IUPUI has never been traditional — heck, it was born non-traditionally! But that's what makes things here so fresh and so new; the perspectives of teachers, researchers and students are shaped by partnerships and fields that might never find one another at other schools."

2009 IUPUI Alumni Magazine