Through Women & the Ways We Work, I’ve now talked to two women are particularly passionate about the environment and science. Each of their additional interests have overlapped with other interests of mine in a different way. Soon after I joined the Society for Technical Communications Carolina Chapter in 2013, I met Cathy Sprankle. With our shared interests in education, the outdoors, the theatre, and encouraging other women, Cathy is great to be story #20 and I’m fascinated by how she integrates science into communications.
- Cathy, despite our monthly calls, I’ve never really gotten the details on what do you do. in your job. Could you tell me about it and why you have chosen that?
I’m a science writer/editor, communications manager and webmaster. I work for a small business that provides preclinical and research support services to government and commercial clients. My group supports an office of the National Toxicology Program that evaluates and promotes the use of alternatives to animal use for chemical safety testing. The primary duties of my job are developing and maintaining content for our client’s website, writing news articles and announcements about our work, and editing and managing production of our group’s publications.
I worked for many years as a lab scientist, but in the early 2000s my career had started to stagnate and none of the things I could do to reinvigorate it appealed to me. So even though I didn’t think I had a shot at it, I applied for my current job, which I saw as an opportunity to put my research experience to use in a job where the primary focus would be writing and communications, things I knew I was pretty good at. Thankfully, the hiring manager felt the same way. I got the job and just celebrated my tenth anniversary in it.
- Wow. That’s awesome. Congrats! What did you want to be when you “grew up” and how has that evolved?
When I was very young, I wanted to be a writer. As I tried to make that vision a reality in my teens and early 20s, I focused on fiction writing, which was what I was most interested in and familiar with. Unfortunately, I can’t write dialogue or develop characters very well.
It was only after I found opportunities to write in my job as a scientist that I realized technical writing was where my true talent as a writer lies. (I love to write standard operating procedures.) I have two younger sisters; Amy wanted to be a teacher when she was very young, and Margaret wanted to be an artist. Now, after stints in aerospace engineering and as a stay-at-home mom, Amy is a math tutor, and after many years in a more traditional career in architecture, Margaret does scale drawings for real estate clients and sells the occasional watercolor painting. I think it goes to show that those early childhood ideas of ourselves as adults contain some insights into our true passions and talents, and need to be listened to as we get older.
- That’s pretty awesome. Those are a lot of dreams and desires. How happy have you been with your choices?
By and large, pretty happy. Where we are is the result of our choices, so if you’re happy with where you are, then by definition you’re happy with those choices. Though it took me a few years to realize it, moving to North Carolina from the Washington D.C. area was a great decision. I was also very lucky to meet Jay, my husband; we just celebrated our 30th anniversary, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather spend the rest of my life with. There were a few opportunities to travel that I passed up when I was young that I wish I’d taken, and I sometimes wonder whether we did the right thing by buying our current house, which is very large and high-maintenance. But I try to keep in mind that I make the best decisions I can with the information I have at the time, and I shouldn’t waste time second-guessing them.
- There can be a lot to take in as we explore the things we do. How do you learn best?
I learn best by doing; there’s really no substitute for trying something and screwing it up or getting feedback on it (positive or negative) to really understand something at a very deep level. I love taking classes, though, particularly classes that meet in person. The combination of a good teacher and a group of interested, motivated students that are all bringing different experiences to the class is energizing. I can learn from books and podcasts (my current topic of choice for non-fiction reading is English history), but if I’m really serious about learning something and I have a choice between taking a class and pursuing a more self-directed learning option, I’ll go for the class.
- I hear that. Interactions can really make the difference. What sort of things have you observed about the expectations and interactions for women?
Our culture communicates a lot of expectations for women that are pretty unrealistic, and that makes it easy to doubt yourself and get discouraged. In the workplace, you have to interact according to a set of rules and norms created by men that tend to disadvantage the way women naturally behave, but then you run the risk of being viewed negatively if you start behaving too much like a man. If you’re a mother, you need to be your child’s advocate in a world that may not be sympathetic to that child’s needs, and to a certain extent the child’s success or failure reflects on you more so than on the father. Of course, you have to look great while you’re doing all this. I think one advantage women have in all these situations is our natural inclination to collaborate and help others. There have been many occasions when I’ve gotten great advice and support from female friends and colleagues when I’ve run into difficulties in my personal or professional life.
- It’s great to have that kind of network. What do you devote your time to outside of “work?”
I have sort of a love-hate relationship with gardening and yard work. My house has a big yard that requires a lot of attention, and I hate the idea that I have to devote two to three hours a week of my precious spare time to it. But when I get out there in the sunshine, doing physical work, smelling the earth and the plants, and listening to my favorite podcasts, it usually ends up being the best part of my week. I also find having a beautiful yard, growing my own vegetables, and creating a habitat for wildlife very rewarding. I do a lot of volunteer work, because one of the great pleasures of my life is working with a group of people to make something happen. I also recently rediscovered my love of sewing and crafts; I wish I had enough time to make all the beautiful things I’d like to make!
- Speaking of beautiful things and happiness, what causes and organizations are you most passionate about?
I’ve volunteered in support of various performing arts organizations for about 40 years now; Raleigh Little Theatre is basically my second home. I think the arts are important because they give us opportunities to experience others’ lives and viewpoints, and the performing arts are particularly engaging because of their participatory nature. I’m also very concerned about the environment, but apart from actions and choices in my personal life and some minor involvement with the Audubon Society, I haven’t found a way to translate my concern into action very effectively.
- It can be hard to do that. Who has been a great influence along the way?
My mom has been a huge influence in my life. I admire her honesty, loyalty, and forthrightness, and I love her genuine interest in people. She can’t spend 10 minutes with anyone without finding out where they’re from, if they’re married, what their spouse does, if they have kids, and where their kids work/go to school, for starters. She and my dad both did a great job of modeling work/life balance when I was growing up. Mom’s job was mother and homemaker, but she also always had an oil painting in progress the whole time I was growing up. I’ve also had a lot of wonderful colleagues that have helped me develop professionally and showed me that it’s possible to excel at your job while at the same time pursuing a serious hobby or raising a family.
- I’m glad you point out possibilities. What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?
Figuring out how to translate interests in life sciences, math, and writing into a rewarding career was very hard. The University of Virginia is a wonderful institution that I love dearly and am glad I attended, but to be honest when I was enrolled there they really didn’t know what to do with a biology major that wasn’t planning to attend medical school. Having a broader sense of what different jobs were out there would have helped a lot, but that information wasn’t as easy to come by in the 1980s as it is now. I ended up in the right place eventually, but I spent a lot of time in jobs that weren’t very good fits for me. I learned a lot from those “bad fit” jobs, though, and one piece of advice that I try to give my kids and other folks starting out is to be patient in finding your way. Your first job out of college is very likely to be a crap job, but it won’t be a waste of time if you develop some skills in it and learn something about the kind of work you do (and don’t!) want to do.
- It is definitely a challenge to find the right place. What are you most proud of?
I’m very proud of the fact that I went back to school in my forties, got my master’s degree, and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. It was very satisfying to get a degree in English, the area that I always knew was my passion and my strength. It was also a very affirming thing to do at a time when I found myself questioning my direction, purpose, and goals in life. I owe a lot to Jay for supporting me; he basically kept the trains running at home for six months of the year for six years so I could accomplish this. I also owe a lot to a former boss who left a job she was very good at to go back to medical school. It was Paula’s action that planted the idea in my mind that it was within the realm of possibility to do something like that.
- Leave us with some good ideas. Best and worst advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot of good advice from a lot of people over the years, but two pieces in particular stand out:
- “You have no control over how other people behave, but you have complete control over how you react to their behavior” – Steven Covey. I abandoned “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” after four chapters when I became convinced it was not grounded in reality (at least the reality I was experiencing at the time), but this quote was worth all the time I put into it. It’s very liberating to realize that even though you might be justified in feeling angry or offended by someone’s behavior, there are situations when acting on those feelings just isn’t going to get you where you need to go.
- “Don’t try to be the Lone Ranger” – a friend who had experience with some difficulties I was having with my daughter. No matter what you’re going through, someone else has gone through it, too, and tapping into their experience is very likely to lighten your load.
Worst advice I’ve ever gotten: “It doesn’t really matter what you major in, because whatever kind of job you end up in, you’ll leave it when you start a family.” Nobody ever told me that explicitly, but it was a pervasive unspoken message I got from many directions throughout high school and college. The possibility that I might never marry, or might not choose to have children, or might decide with my spouse that returning to work after the birth of any children would be the best choice for our family never seemed to be considered. That was forty years ago, but unfortunately I think a lot of young women are still getting the same message.
Follow Cathy on Twitter to see more of her interests.
Thanks for reading Cathy’s story. Share in the comments how it impacted you or share it on social media. Check out next week’s weekly post on Women & the Ways We Work. Missed the others? Take a look at my blog to read the others. Know someone you think should be featured? Can I help you or your organization with a storytelling project? Contact me and let’s chat.