Get to Know Our New CEO: Emily Dilger, PhD
Emily Dilger has been running Ignited’s programs for the past four and a half years and is stepping into the role of CEO. We interviewed Emily about this exciting transition!
As Ignited’s new CEO, what are you most excited about?
I’m excited about two things: Ignited’s mission and collaborating with smart and motivated people.
Ignited’s mission is to empower teachers to learn directly from industry professionals and bring those learnings to their students. I believe in this mission deeply and passionately, and am so honored to be in the position to lead this organization’s next chapter. This summer, Ignited, with our mighty staff of 5, will connect more than 100 teachers with professionals ranging from construction workers to IT to green roof landscapers. All those teachers will be paid for their time to develop a lesson to bring the careers they were exposed to back to their students. Those teachers will impact almost 150,000 students during the 2023/24 school year alone, equipping our youth with the skills and knowledge necessary to thrive in the workforce of tomorrow. The guidance from teachers is especially meaningful for students who don’t have college or career guidance in their personal lives; teachers are one of the biggest influences on students’ favorite subject, area of study, and ultimately career path.
The second thing I’m excited about is collaborating with smart and passionate people. I do my best work when it’s with others. Ignited partners so effectively with other amazing organizations in the Bay Area, and I’m excited to continue those partnerships and to develop new ones. And also, I’m grateful to know I’m not doing this alone. Ignited has an incredible staff whom I love and I love collaborating with – and I am so excited to see what this team can accomplish!
Tell us about your career path. How did you end up in the education field?
It was mostly a collection of risks that turned out to be strategic in the end. Like most people, I didn’t follow a straight line. I didn’t do super well in elementary school – memorization was tough for me, and spelling has always been a weakness, so with times tables and spelling tests, there were many tears. I found excitement outside of structured school activities, like exploring the beach near where I grew up on Long Island, learning how sea stars eat. I did okay in high school and early college, but as the science classes I took got further away from memorization and deeper into the why and how, I did better and got more excited. I fell in love with biochemistry because it explained all the facts I’d spent so much time memorizing over the years!
I wound up getting my PhD in neuroscience, but basically was studying the biochemical mechanisms of a specific protein in visual development. During grad school, I did a lot of volunteering in education and outreach, and so after I finished I decided I wanted to do something that helped “regular” people connect with scientists and learn science. Since learning outside of school was so important to me, I wanted to give that to others. I got a 3 month temporary position working at my scientific membership organization (think NSTA but for scientists) at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), which turned into 5 years and me managing a website about the brain and nervous system written at the high school reading level.
And how did this lead to Ignited?
I loved my job at SfN, but one thing I was missing was the relationships. Because we were a membership organization with people all over the world, I couldn’t run many local DC events, because I couldn’t also run local Minneapolis events, much less local Lagos, Nigeria events – which meant that I interacted with most people online, and mostly through one-off interactions.
A number of other positions (and a cross-country move) later, I love working at Ignited because I am able to help teachers experience science for themselves, and because I get to know many of the teachers I work with! I get to see how the experiences impact them, and I get to hear how it impacts their students. The balance between impact and relationships, while focusing on teachers experiencing the working world beyond the school walls, is what keeps me at Ignited.
Did any of your teachers play a notable role in impacting your career trajectory?
I credit my third grade teacher, Ms. McCahill, for teaching me how to read. She helped me get excited about the stories and the things I could learn from reading, which motivated me to get past the memorization of sight words! I experienced the awe of biochemistry through of my college teacher Dr. Kelli Slunt, and my grad school teacher Dr. Clive Baumgarten taught me to learn by teaching. Honestly I’ve been lucky to have so many teachers and mentors who have influenced my path along the way, too many to name them all!
Why does education need industry? Why does industry need education?
It is always intimidating to connect with someone different than yourself. I experienced this for myself in grad school – I was terrified to talk to students, but thought that was the only way I could help get others excited about science. Now, I talk to industry professionals who haven’t met a teacher since their college years, and I talk to teachers who haven’t spoken to any professionals outside of schools in a work setting.
Both have a lot to learn from each other, and both want the transition from school to work to be less bumpy for the next generation. Teachers have so much expertise to share with other professionals! I love the stories of teachers bringing new perspectives to a team, or a professional getting their first supervisory experience in a “safe” way though a teacher. Who can simplify and translate complex materials better than a teacher? Who can understand both the latest meme and CRISPR – and then relate the two?
Careers and next steps are complicated, and we need industry and education to collaborate to make these transitions smoother for students!
Outside of work hours, what can we catch you doing?
1) Taking my dog for walks in beautiful nature; 2) Skating. Yes, roller, Quads. I’m working on my backwards crossovers; or 3) Reading a good book. Current fiction read is “The Huntress,” by Kate Quinn. My current non-fiction book is, “The Dinosaur Artist,” by Paige Williams. My favorite fiction book is “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle, and my favorite non-fiction is “The Emperor of All Maladies,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee.