I apologize for my spotty blogging recently. My last fall semester of undergraduate has begun and between working 20ish hours a week in the lab and getting used to my course load I’ve been a bit overwhelmed. Napping truly has become one of my top priorities. On top of all of this I am having to face a decision I’ve been avoiding making for the last three years. And honestly, will effect my entire life and career. Graduate school.
I guess I’ll start explaining some of my background. In high school I did the International Baccalaureate program. An experience that I have absolutely no regrets about. Which is pretty rare. I had the most inspiring teachers (Kim Clever, Dr. Steven Fleet, Michelle Fleet, Leah Yates, Richard Umbach, and Dr. Christina Funk just to name a few) who encouraged me to learn without any restrictions and apply my knowledge without fear. In the program a requirement was writing an ‘extended essay’ which was a 4,000 word research paper independently written under an adviser. Basically, a mini thesis. I decided to write mine under the care of Dr. Christine Funk in the field of ecology. “The Urbanization of Douglas County and its Effect on the Fresh Water Ecosystem” was what resulted, I examined three bodies of water in the quickly expanding town I grew up in for environmental toxins and discussed the possible effects these abnormal chemical levels could have on wildlife. This experience changed my life and led me on the road to pursuing science as my undergraduate major.
When I arrived at the University of Colorado (Boulder) in the fall of 2013 I was already starting my sophomore year (thanks to the credit I earned in IB). I couldn’t decide between the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EBIO) program and the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) program, so I opted for a redundant double major. Along with non-science classes I took in order to get a B.A degree I took General Chemistry 1+2, Ecology, and Genetics. I suck at chemistry, at least in terms of grades for these classes (I’ll be straight up, I got a C). Not because I don’t understand it, or like it, but because I wasn’t inspired by the chemistry professors at all, I couldn’t thrive on the multiple choice trick question exams, and I was overwhelmed by the 300 person classroom (seriously, we took our exams in the basketball stadium). This was the year that I discovered what I needed to be an effective learner (a passionate teacher, freedom in answering questions, and endurance) and how to deal with failure (for me this was not getting straight A’s).
I wasn’t happy. Science wasn’t make me happy. College didn’t make me happy. I couldn’t base my self-confidence off of my intelligence (which I perceived as grades) anymore. Like most people, I was always very nerdy growing up and I had a hard time fitting in with my peers. I liked comic books, fantasy, reading, etc. so I couldn’t connect with many girls my age and I wasn’t athletic at all so I couldn’t keep up with the boys. To compensate for my oddballness I loved school and always excelled, when I got good grades I realized that this made my parents happy. It was a big deal for me to make my parents happy as they (like most adults) suffered from depression/anxiety, struggled financially, and had difficulties in their marriage. Slowly I formed the destructive habit (which I didn’t realize was destructive until college) of basing my self-worth entirely on my grades/success. This was just as bad as basing my self worth on looks, romantic relationships, money, or popularity which are sources that are more commonly identified as destructive. It’s something that isn’t talked about a lot as it usually results in success, and is definitely an asset in some contexts, but can still lead to downward spirals.
Like most people, my downward spiral occurred my freshmen year of college. I had always had anxiety, but the pressure and disappointment I now faced led me to develop OCD symptoms and intermittent panic attacks.
This is pretty hard for me to talk about publicly, because I worry this will come off as weakness and influence people’s opinions of my abilities, but I think it’s extremely important for me to do so. Like most industries, science (in particular academia) is one that is sometimes cut throat, intense, and requires severe focus. When you work in a world of logic, it’s hard to discuss emotions. When you’re competing with some of the most intelligent people in the world you want to appear hardened and ruthless. However, for most scientists (at least the good ones), letting go of your humanity and ignoring your weaknesses is not an option. I will admit that I’m vulnerable, and I hope that I can inspire others.
I considered changing majors, changing my career path entirely. My father and I struggled to put me through school every semester financially and I had the added anxiety of feeling like I was wasting money and time. So… why did I stay in science? Well, research was my saving grace. I was fortunate enough to have programs at CU Boulder that supported me financially as I put all of my energy into designing research projects. Scientific research is the most terrifying and exhilarating thing a human being can experience.
When I realized that magic wasn’t real, that my acceptance letter to Hogwarts wasn’t coming, I was devastated. As most kids probably are. But, for me, I guess I never really grew out of that disappointment. But science? Science is the closest thing mortals have to magic. And though the severe anxiety that comes with realizing humanity’s udder ignorance when it comes to nature, space, and time, it’s also an honor to contribute to a minuscule part of the puzzle. This drive humans have to ask about the world around us is something that not only unifies us culturally, but through time and space. It’s pretty amazing when you realize you are feeling an excitement identical to the giddiness Issac Newton probably felt when he held a prism up to the light in 1670 (not that Newton would ever admit he was giddy). That you feel the same passion about the universe as Aristotle did while he was studying a little bit of literally everything thousands of years ago. That you too feel the same comfort in retreating into science as Alan Turing did when he felt rejected by the world he lived in. Accepting science, despite the unanswered questions it forces you to acknowledge, is one of the bravest things a human can do. Even though science can offer amazing solutions to the hurdles nature throws at us, it also forces us to accept chaos and reject simple answers.
Research allows you to maintain this youthful intensity for science while also giving you the power to change the world.
Once I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to quit, that I was going to keep moving forward because my passion for science outweighed my fear of failure, I vowed to change the industry that almost broke me. The reality is science, and academics in general, is becoming extremely corporatized. I feel as if my education was treated like an assembly line. I had professors who didn’t care about me succeeding, didn’t try to inspire me to enter their field, and actively ‘weeded’ us out of their classroom. That made science (and education in general), something that always was ‘safe’ for me, feel cold and uncaring which broke my heart.
So, I became a TA in one of these horrible 300 person classes that almost broke me when I took it. A class that somehow managed to make a subject like genetics, and a student as enthusiastic as me, completely bored. I worked my ass off to give the students who put the effort in all of my attention and enthusiasm. I made analogies to enlighten difficult concepts, I tried to inspire the awe I felt in them, and most importantly I tried to made them smile. And you know what? It worked. I got a ridiculous amount of positive feedback, and it was then that I realized this is what I wanted to do. That giving someone else the gift of science, or as I like to call it, magic (like many professors have given me), would not only benefit the future of the field, of science, and of humanity, it also made me feel like Gandalf.
So, even though the idea of signing up to be in the scary world of graduate school and academia terrifies me, I don’t think I could do anything else. After all, ‘somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known’ (Carl Sagan).