Paying It Forward at Cal Academy

Graduate Division

During my first year in graduate school, I quickly learned that I needed some sort of outside-of-lab activity, or else I would go crazy. I tried a smattering of hobbies, from rock climbing to making wall art out of wire (that didn’t end well), but nothing ever stuck.

After TA-ing during my second year, I realized that I enjoy teaching.  I like preparing lectures and inventing creative ways to explain complex topics. And if I am to be completely honest, I feel encouraged by having people actually listen to what I am saying.

Soon after the quarter was over, I saw that the California Academy of Sciences was looking for new volunteer docents. After a few quick interviews, I was accepted into the program, given a huge binder of reading materials and enrolled in a series of training lectures.

The lectures covered a wide range of topics, from the history of the Academy to how fossils are dated. Even with a science background, I learned a lot of new information, including ways to engage visitors in scientific conversations without being overbearing or over-boring.

After the training, I was able to work on the floor as a docent. New docents are asked to volunteer for 10.5 hours per month (split into three shifts).

During a shift, my duties include helping guests understand the exhibits and encouraging them to think about how they relate to the animal or information they are observing.

Many docents refer to themselves as “interactive signs” that assist in making the museum more relatable.

I claim I am there to make guests actively think, instead of mindlessly wandering around looking at dead things. Whether or not I actually accomplish this goal, or just annoy people, is an entirely different story.

I would highly recommend the docent program to any creative individuals who have an interest in improving the way they teach to both scientists and non-scientists.

Perks of being a volunteer docent include access to a tremendous community of nature enthusiasts with a lot of great life advice (most of them are retirees from quite successful careers), invites to all the fancy parties held at the Academy (as a guest, not a volunteer!) and a plethora of fun facts to impress your friends with.

More information on being a docent and other volunteer opportunities at the Academy can be found under the “Get Involved” tab on the California Academy of Sciences website (

Editor's Note: “Serving the community [is] ingrained in the ethos of UC San Francisco,” proudly proclaims the university web- site. Indeed, as members of a health sciences university, UCSF students and staff are devoted to improving the lives of people throughout the world.

For many, this passion for public service extends beyond their career aspirations. This column highlights these altruistic individuals as well as the organizations they serve.

Please email [email protected] if you would like your organization to be featured in “Paying it Forward.”

~ Jenny Qi
Executive Editor