Dr. Poh Tan on How Different Epistemologies Have Converged in Her Research and Why It Is Important

May 31, 2020

It was a delightful conversation with Dr. Poh Tan - two times TEDx speaker and the inaugural recipient of the Kris Magnusson Emerging Leaders Award. With a PhD in Experimental Medicine and towards obtaining a second PhD in Education - a venture that not  many would attempt, Dr. Tan successfully wears many hats. She is a scientist, author, entrepreneur, educator, mother and volunteer.

Dr. Tan is completing her second PhD from the Educational Theory and Practice program at SFU. Her research focuses on understanding the development of scientific literacy through different lenses including Indigenous Hawaiian epistemology. She has published many research articles, authored and co-authored book chapters and co-published children’s books.

Dr. Tan served as the editor-in-chief of SFU Educational Review -a graduate student run open access journal. Under her leadership, the journal grew readership by 100% and the submission rate doubled as well. She also led and created an editorial advisory board for the journal. Under her management, by the combined efforts of the editorial team and SFU’s Bennett Library, SFU Educational Review was approved and added to the DOAJ-Directory of Open Access Journals. Dr. Tan was also an executive member of the Education graduate students’ association. She worked as a graduate writing facilitator at the Bennett Library and as a research assistant at the faculty of education research hub. In recognition of her numerous contributions, Dr. Tan has received many awards and accolades. Recently, she has been awarded with the prestigious Dean of Education Kris Magnusson Emerging Leaders Graduate  Award for leadership and advocacy for positive change.

In this interview, Dr. Tan talked about her research, her journey in academia, her life and shared valuable insights for fellow colleagues.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I am an entrepreneur, scientist, researcher and educator.  I am the founder and owner of two businesses and an education centre with a vision to advance science education, especially among children. I am currently pursuing my second PhD in Education and my research focuses on the development and understanding of scientific literacy.  Prior to starting the second PhD, I worked in the biotech industry; I was specifically involved in the business and marketing sector.  Working closely with my colleagues from different departments within the company, I was able to further develop my business skills that inspired me to launch my own business in 2011. My knowledge and expertise in business has been recognized by the Beedie School of Business of SFU and I have been offered to work as an industry mentor for the school.  I am also a big advocate of STEM education and I specifically emphasize on the need for women to pursue careers in the STEM field. I am an active member on the scientific panel at the Rare Genomics Institute. My career priorities changed after having my first son. My interest and passion shifted from practicing science in the laboratory to science education to contribute to improving scientific literacy in the society.  With so much misinformation from social media and mainstream media about science, I feel it is my responsibility as a scientist to help educate people so that they may be able to make better judgements when it comes to scientific information.  As part of my commitment in promoting science education, I am involved in the Community Scientist Initiative and Scientist in Schools Programs at the Telus World of Science.

I think I am an entrepreneur at heart, and  I love including my children in all of  my ventures and projects. I collaborated with young children including my son to publish two books for children. My latest venture is with my colleague and friend Quincy Wang. We are creating an educational technology platform to promote  scientific literacy in non-formal and formal learning.  I am truly excited to be a part of this journey and to be able to contribute towards exploring different ways of learning.  

Great to hear about your very impressive academic and career paths Dr. Tan. Here is a question I think you hear a lot-why did you decide to pursue a second PhD? 

Yes, I do get this question a lot and it is a logical one to ask. Most people do not usually do two PhDs!  Throughout my academic journey, I have only met two people, both women, who are pursuing a second doctorate degree. But  I have not met anyone who is pursuing a second PhD in an entirely different field.  One of the main reasons for my pursuing a PhD in Education is that I love learning.  I often joke with my friends that if I didn’t have to worry about finances, I would be a learner/student all my life.  The second reason, which is more important,  is that I want to truly understand how, why and what educational scholars should do to develop their students’ understanding in science, to spark their interest and to maintain their curiosity for learning science.  I think by teaching science I not only impact what my students are learning in the classroom, but also how they use it in taking decisions in their everyday life and their perception of the world as a scientifically literate person. This is precisely why I decided to pursue a PhD in Education; I want to learn more about how people learn and explore different ways to learn about science to make a positive impact on science education.

Please briefly share your current research with us.

As mentioned before, my previous PhD  is in the field of stem cell biology.  For the readers who are not familiar with this field, it is a study of special cells in our body that have an ability to generate all types of cells.  For example, a baby develops from one stem cell (fertilized egg), and after multiple cell divisions and specific cell developments to form different parts of body, a baby is created.  For my research, I specifically study stem cells that make up our entire immune system.  Coming from a science background, I am interested and passionate about how science education can be imparted beyond the traditional ways of teaching.  Unfortunately, rote learning is a common practice in many science classrooms while teachers rely on lectures and worksheets to teach science. Due to these traditional approaches and methods of teaching, students often find science boring, dry and irrelevant.  I want to help change the scenario by bringing in different ways of understanding and learning science.  One of the ways I have embraced  is  bringing in Indigenous Hawaiian epistemology because learning science is also about how we use our senses and body to be more aware of subtleties that inform us of what we know.  It is about extending beyond textbook knowledge  and developing how we feel about science towards expanding the definition of scientific literacy.

It is very interesting how you conceptualize science and science education. I am intrigued by your incorporation of Indigenous Hawaiian epistemology in your research. Could you please elaborate on that?

Those who know me the most are aware of my passion for hula dance. I have been dancing hula since 2004 and continuing till date.  My hula school, called a halau, keeps close to traditional learning of Hawai’i’s most sacred dance. In addition, we learn about the traditions, history, and culture of the Hawaiian people.  Before each dance, we learn about the meaning of the dance and how it represents the beauty and nature of each island.  It is through hula dance I realized that science has a deeper meaning to me beyond rote learning, textbook knowledge and methodical steps of experimentation. While there is no option for  denying the rigours of science and scientific methods, it is also important to think about science from different perspectives that may not “look” or “feel” scientific.    

What are the implications of your research?

As with all research, discovery and understanding is an on-going, evolving and constantly emerging process. So far what I have learned about extending the meaning of scientific literacy is to include different lenses and perspectives of learning about science.  It is my hope that when we learn about science from a more embodied and relational perspective, our connection with  what we research about, in this case, topics in science, would be a more emotional one.  The more emotionally connected we are with what we are learning about, especially with topics or objects that we don’t usually have an emotional connection, the more we would think about it and treat it differently.  I hope that my research findings from working with different science teachers who are open to embracing a new way of teaching science will inspire their students to learn and think about science differently, and in a more connected and embodied way.

What is your plan for the next step?

I am a passionate entrepreneur and I thrive on new projects and ventures. I always look for new ideas and concepts and try to give them a platform to flourish. At present, I am collaborating with a colleague and friend, Quincy Wang from SFU on building a business for scientific digital learning. We presented our work at Science World’s annual British Columbia’s Science Outreach Workshop meeting and our work has been accepted for presentation at UBC’s largest STEM 2020 conference.  I am also happy that we are collaborating with Dr. Paula MacDowell at the University of Saskatchewan to further develop on how immersive technology can help facilitate a more relational connection with the subject of science.  You can find out more about my research and projects from my website at www.pohtanphd.ca

We are almost at the end of our interview. What would you like to say to  aspiring graduates who are considering research in your field?

My word of advice to any student considering a PhD, not just in my field, is to prepare for a journey that values hard work, perseverance and resilience the most. It is not about what field or topic you are interested in or you think you are interested in because that will change.  Your topic may change as you will meet new people along the way and will be introduced to different ideas, concepts and projects.  With these encounters, your ideas and interest become more informed and more refined.  In my opinion, one of the most important things to consider when pursuing graduate studies is your readiness for commitment of time, energy and interest for a considerably long period. These commitments include consideration with your spouse, significant other and family who will be with you all along your academic journey.  Their support in your graduate work is very important especially in those tough emotional times that all graduate students encounter throughout their academic journey.  I would also encourage students to ask questions and to have the courage to ask any question during and after their PhD, no matter what the question is. Keeping an open mind to learning is tremendously helpful. It is also a beautiful experience to learn from colleagues from different backgrounds and scholarships through agreements and disagreements. It is also important to remember that there is no better way than to remain authentic, kind and respectful throughout the PhD journey regardless of how tough it may get or what you discover along the way.  Lastly, whatever you do and what you accomplish at the end, share what you have learnt and contribute to making the world a better place for your family and others who will live on this Earth for many many years after you.