Friday, June 15, 2007

Why I am not a scientist: Part 2

Part 1 is here.

Here I was in Middle School, interested in math and science, loving some aspects of science, but pulled for who knows what reason to pursue writing instead. Middle school was a confusing time. There was puberty to contend with and then there were boys. My diary from those days is filled with entries where I am a) writing about who I like or don't like or b) writing about dealing with friendships. Negotiating the social terrain of middle school seemed to occupy a lot of my time. Which meant there wasn't a lot of time to think about science.

Negotiating the social scene just got worse in high school. There were even more factions to figure out. Boys became increasingly more important and, I started drinking. This combination of things did not help my grade situation, but it was cool for a writer. I started drinking very deliberately in an attempt not to be popular, oddly, but to separate myself from the popular crowd. They were all *too* good, so I thought drinking beer would make me *bad* and therefore differentiate me from them. Before I started drinking, I had a straight A average. I was tied with about 20 other people for the top spot. Somewhere around the second semester of my sophomore year, my grades slipped and I could no longer contend for the top position. In some ways, this took any pressure off of me to keep up the A average and so I kind quit caring about school.

Besides the drinking and social issues, math and science suddenly got a lot harder. I probably should have stuck with biology because I took two biology classes, one intro and one on genetics and loved both of the them, and did really well in both of them. I avoided physics because I was told the teacher didn't like girls. This is the only time ever that I experienced blatant sexism. In fact, two of my three science teachers in middle school were women and both teachers I had in high school were women. So I had role models. And they did encourage me. Just maybe not enough.

When I hit chemistry and trigonometry, things got rough. Coupled with my new "I'm too cool for school" attitude and the difficulty I had understanding basic concepts, I found myself seriously struggling. And I had never had to do that in my life. For a while, instead of just buckling down and figuring stuff out, I just let it slide. In chemistry, several of us were struggling, and a collection of people, more as a prank than as a real attempt to cheat, stole a test. I can't remember if I saw the test. It seems I didn't, because I recall getting a horrible grade on that test. The teacher found out and issued another test. I was so scared of the difficulty of that test that I did buckle down and study. After all, I'd done so poorly on the original that I was likely to do even worse on the new one. But I didn't. I actually got an A. Shockingly, this did not inspire me to study. I did not really put two and two together and realize that if I just studied a little harder, I might do fine. And no one else pointed that out to me either.

The same thing happened in math. I made it through trig in large part because I had a great teacher. I should have hung around him more. He used to tell me he thought I might be a genetic engineer, knowing that I was doing well in biology. Even when I wasn't doing well, he still encouraged me and didn't make me feel stupid if I didn't understand something. At the end of the year, I calculated (real world math!) what I needed to get on the final exam to get an A, a 98. In the past, this would have been no big deal, but I had missed some basic concepts and wasn't sure what to do. So I stopped by my teacher's office and explained to him where I was and that I needed help. And this, I will never forget. He didn't chastise me or tell me how disappointed he was that I hadn't kept up. Instead, he said that he felt like he had let me down. And then he spent almost two hours working with me, going over the basics I had missed and making sure I had understood them. At home, I spread out all my papers and did practice problems for two days straight. I had never studied so hard for anything in my life. I got a 98, giving me an A in the class.

In English, I wasn't struggling at all. I was breezing through. I was getting praise for my writing, both for my creative work and the analytical work I did. Before school, when I was hanging out with friends, they'd ask me if I'd written any poems or stories and I'd show them things I'd written and they tell me how good it was. My English teachers doted on me. And I loved that kind of attention. Once I got to calculus my senior year, and I had a teacher who wrote problems on the board and erased them at the same time and was really unfriendly, I had pretty much given up on math and science. It wasn't worth the struggle, I figured. And I wasn't getting as much attention for my work in math and science as I was for my work in English.

Also, I think I could see a career for myself if I pursued English. I was still hooked on becoming a writer of some kind, maybe a poet, but I was also considering novelist or journalist. Besides genetic engineer, no one really mentioned possible science careers. And since I wasn't doing so well in those subjects . . . No one really said that I didn't have to have perfect grades in an area to pursue it as a career option. I just figured you had to do whatever you were really, really good at.

So high school was certainly a point at which I could have been encouraged to consider a career in science. Perhaps if my other teachers, especially the two women science teachers, had pulled me aside at some point and said, you know you're pretty good at this stuff and maybe you should think about becoming a scientist. But there were other complex reasons for my not staying interested in science or math. They certainly weren't cool. As we progressed through high school, the "cool kids" were definitely not the ones excelling in math and science. There were one or two exceptions but still. And it's amazing how much we cared about that stuff--who was cool, who wasn't, who was dating whom, who was friends with whom. So much energy spent on things that just would not matter a year after we'd left high school. And I don't know how you counter that. And the subtle socialization about who pursued science and math. The boys I knew pursuing those areas wanted to become doctors or engineers. The girls? I didn't know. Mostly, even the smart girls I knew talked about dating and clothes. I had no idea what their intellectual interests might be. And this whole problem would continue in college. I just didn't hang around any girls who were studying science. In fact, I mostly hung around guys, and this, I think, caused some problems . . .