Deana Arnold’s Shift from Geneticist to Middle School Science Teacher

A young, high school-aged version of new middle school science teacher Deana Arnold nearly cried over her trigonometry homework. Luckily, she found a solution in the form of Mr. Howard—her math teacher for all four years at Lincoln High School in Lincoln, California. Arnold would meet Howard every morning at 7 a.m., determined to understand math.

“He must have been sick of seeing me by the end,” Arnold said. “Never in a moment do I remember him ever feeling like, ‘Oh great, here she is back again.’ It was always, he wanted to be there. That’s why he was a teacher.”

After high school, Arnold entered Sierra Community College to finish her general education requirements before transferring to veterinarian school. There, she took a zoology class because she was interested in the way organisms were connected within their evolutionary history and fell in love with genetics.

Deana Arnold’s mother takes a photo of her outside the gym to commemorate her UC Davis PhD graduation ceremony in June of 1999. (Photo courtesy of Deana Arnold.)

“We were dissecting things all the way through the Tree of Life and learning how many similarities there were between organisms,” Arnold said. “There’s so many similarities, especially the more closely related they are, but oftentimes, the more similar something is, the more similar the DNA is.”

From that point on, Arnold had caught the science bug and decided to pursue a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in genetics at UC Davis.

When she was a senior, Arnold received an invitation from the head of the genetics department at Davis, Dr. Scott Hawley, to do her undergraduate research in his lab.

In the lab, they studied Drosophila—fruit fly—genetics. While Arnold did not choose this subject herself, she was excited to work in the lab because it was an enormous opportunity for starting her career.

“It’s a lot of fun in science to have a question that you’re trying to answer,” she said. “We talked about hypotheses in school, but to actually have a real scientific question that nobody knows the answer to, and then design experiments to try to figure out how to tease the answer out of the data was enjoyable for me.”

Arnold spent about 16 years of her career working in the science industry after graduating. She was a patent agent, an individual registered with the U.S Patent and Trademark Office who writes patent applications. A patent is a government authority or license that protects intellectual property from being used, sold or made by others. Arnold worked for two genetics-focused companies: Perlegen Sciences and Pacific Biosciences.

Between 1994 and 1998, Arnold did her doctoral research at Stephen Kowalczykowski lab after transferring there from the lab of Scott Hawley. In Hawley’s lab she studied Drosophila during her undergraduate years. Turning to a new study on protein genetics at Stephen Kowalczykowski lab was refreshing for Arnold. (Photo courtesy of Deana Arnold.)

“A lot of my work was by myself, so I sat in a cube and wrote all day, or called an examiner and argued with them,” Arnold said. “So much of my time was spent on the technical patent stuff that I missed getting deeper into the science and trying to think about those questions more.”

As Arnold continued to long for the hands-on scientific aspect of her career, she found interest in teaching her daughters. Whenever they had trouble in science classes, she enjoyed being able to help them understand a concept.

“There’s something really special about presenting something and people are like, ‘What?’ but then you come out from a different angle and then they’re like, ‘Oh!’” Arnold said.

Arnold had considered teaching before, especially after hearing her grandmother talk about her work as an elementary school teacher, but it never seemed to align with the path she was on.

At some point in your life you realize, alright, you don’t have that much time. If you really want to do this, you need to do it or decide you’re not going to do it. And I really wanted to do it, so I left my high tech job and decided to get credentials.

— Deana Arnold

“At some point in your life you realize, alright, you don’t have that much time,” Arnold said. “If you really want to do this, you need to do it or decide you’re not going to do it. And I really wanted to do it, so I left my high tech job and decided to get credentials.”

Arnold started teaching in 2018 as a student teacher and since then has served as a substitute and full-time teacher for both middle and high school science classes. Within three years, Arnold has taught at five different schools.

New schools, new rules, new cultures. Arnold has grown accustomed to the transition of starting at a new school because that is all she has experienced in her short teaching years.

Arnold leans against a tall redwood tree—a part of the three acres of forest in the backyard of her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo courtesy of Deana Arnold.)

Currently, Arnold lives in the Santa Cruz mountains with three acres of woods in her backyard. She loves to explore the area where an ephemeral stream flows. It only runs in the winter and dries up in the summer so Arnold finds it fascinating to see its changes.

“I often find myself wondering ‘What kind of plant is that?’, ‘Is it native?’ or ‘What kind of fungus is that?’” Arnold said. “This natural curiosity about the natural world does relate to my love of science and interest in science.”

Arnold values students as human beings, whether or not they are a great student. She is ready to meet them where they are and help them. Arnold feels that a job well done is based on more than having a successful teaching day.

“I love the science, but it’s a vehicle for teaching other skills as well, that helps these kids bloom,” Arnold said.

In the original published article, there was inaccurate information about where Arnold grew up. It’s now corrected and updated. Aquila apologizes and regrets this error.