November 17, 2015

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Professor Sara Pritchard: Propelled by Love of History From Seattle, to France, to Cornell

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“I always liked historical fiction when I was a kid,” recounted Prof. Sara Pritchard, science and technology studies. “I liked reading stories set in the past. I will confess, I was a big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie series.”

Despite her early interest in history, Pritchard said her ambitions were not particularly lofty growing up as a child — and most certainly not academic.

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Professor Sara Pritchard (Vivan Vazquez / Sun Staff Photographer)

“I never wanted to be an astronaut as a child,” Pritchard said. “I’ll admit that I had very gendered ideas about my future. I thought that I would be a high school teacher or maybe even a secretary.”

Raised in Seattle, Pritchard attended public school from kindergarten through high school, which she said influenced her ideas of diversity.

“That was really important to my educational and life experience in terms of having a sense of what a diverse city Seattle is, with all its different people and their various backgrounds and perspectives,” Pritchard said.

After studying history at the University of Puget Sound, a liberal arts college in Western Washington, Pritchard then went on to complete a Master’s and a Ph.D in history at Stanford University.

“Between my college experience, graduate school experience and where I’ve worked either as a post-doc or a professor, I think I’ve crossed almost every university category,” Pritchard said.

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Professor Sara Pritchard speaks on conducting research in southeastern France, which culminated in her first book, titled Confluence: The nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône. (Vivian Vazquez / Sun Staff Photographer)

According to Pritchard, her experience across a wide range of academia has given her a broad perspective on various dynamics of post-secondary education. She has been particularly attuned to the gender biases that are imposed on professors by students and vice-versa.

Pritchard recalled her first day of teaching at Montana State University, her first faculty teaching job, when she was interrupted by a student questioning her credentials during an overview of the course material.

To Pritchard, her title of “Professor” should have been enough, she said.

Her faculty peers advised her not to justify her position with her educational background — which includes postdoctoral fellowships at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania — for fear that it might isolate her from her students, many of whom were non-traditional or first-generation college students, according to Pritchard.

“I think that being at Cornell, there are certain assumptions about both the students and the faculty,” Pritchard said, referring to the expected academic pedigree of faculty members at an Ivy League university.

“I have to say, and I think that maybe this comes out of my public education, I don’t think the pedigree makes the person or the scholar or the teacher,” Pritchard said.

Pritchard herself has not always been in highly sought-after academic positions. Between undergraduate and graduate school, she worked as a barista in Seattle and then spent six months living in France.

“That was also a formative experience,” Pritchard said. “I lived in a very rural part of southeastern France, in a chateau within a village of seven houses.”

Pritchard’s interest in France started in middle school when she started formally studying French. According to Pritchard, it was her time in France that would ultimately be one of her first forays into the type of research that has been at the core of her academic life ever since.

“I ended up hearing about a small research institute that was based in southeastern France,” Pritchard said. “They focused on environmental history and environmental studies. I basically wrote them a letter and proposed coming and doing research for them in exchange for having access to their library.”

Her first book, titled “Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône,” focuses on the Rhône River as a way to look at the effects of technological development and environmental management on state building and political identity in France.

Pritchard’s newest research endeavor will focus on the history and politics of light pollution.

“It’s challenging to organize this project spatially,” Pritchard said. “In some ways the problem is very localized — for instance, Schoellkopf Field’s lights and their impact on migratory birds immediately above.”

Pritchard noted, however, that the light pollution phenomenon can also be looked at on a much larger scale.

“I’m working on an article right now that examines NASA satellite images of light pollution from space,” Pritchard said. “I’m trying to figure out a way to tell a story that can encapsulate light pollution’s multiple dimensions and spatial scales.”

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