Since late April, Iris Shih has played an integral role in the RFID tagging and encoding project at Sherman-Fairchild Library.
A Pasadena native, Iris has personal associations with Caltech that go back to her childhood. She sat down to talk about the trajectory that led her to library services after working for years as a chemistry teacher.
“My dad came here for his aeronautic engineering Ph.D., and I believe my mom’s eldest brother and his wife might also have done a postdoc here at Caltech. So that’s how my mom and dad met.” Iris’ father went on to a career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which included taking part in the launching of the Mars Pathfinder.
Iris recalled visiting the JPL as a child and using the Caltech sports facilities as a teenager. “My dad’s hobbies were basketball and jogging. We spent many afternoons on the Caltech track or in the gymnasium. When I got older—middle school and high school—I practiced [baton] twirling while he played basketball. So we shared the old gym.”
Although she cites chemistry as her favorite science, Iris studied psychobiology at UCLA and materials engineering at CSU Northridge. Interested in public speaking, she enrolled in an education series that led to considerable experience as a tutor and lecturer.
“I tutored the first-year chemistry series at UCLA. I got very used to teaching twenty-five to forty students… I think people are always surprised that I don’t have a degree in chemistry, but that is actually where my subject expertise is, because all of my career I’ve written curriculum for chemistry.”
Graduating in 2010, Iris went on to teach high school chemistry for several years, including under her former AP Chem teacher. Although she is passionate about higher education, she felt discouraged by the prospect of earning a Ph.D. “I think when I got out of teaching and considered what I could get into, the draw of libraries was that they were service-oriented and community based. I particularly like the sound of reference services and circulation because you get more student and faculty interaction. That always appealed to me.”
In 2020, coinciding with the beginning of the pandemic, she decided to leave teaching and pursue library services. “I think because of all I wanted to do as a teacher, it became untenable. I was working eighty hours a week… Every few years I would stop and reassess. My entire life I identified as a teacher. What will I be without that? And that has been a really hard transition… After I tried everything and I knew it was time, I was still crying my eyes out.”
Despite that, Iris is quick to express excitement about working at her dad’s alma mater. “Caltech has always been somewhat of a dream for me. It definitely reminds me of home… I think Caltech is one of those cornerstones in my life.” —Benjamin Maggio