Monday, June 18, 2007

Why I am Not a Scientist, part 3

Didn't realize there was a part 3, did you? Here's part 1 and part 2.

College. Heading into college, I maintained equal interest in science and humanities. In fact, I'd scored exactly evenly on the SATs, which I've always found funny. I fully expected to major in English, but I still signed up for Intro to Biology, convinced by my mother because she said I was good at it and that I wanted to keep my options open. The Biology book was the biggest, heaviest book I owned. I think it cost close to $100, which was more than I'd ever paid for a book. I was at a small liberal arts college where one of the draws was small classes. My Biology class, however, had around 50 people in it. We sat in a lecture hall where the professor lectured on cell division and structure, drawing on the board and using overheads. I sat somewhere in the middle. When I went to read my first Biology assignment, I became completely frustrated. I could not really parse the book. It was written in English. There were words I understood, but when they were combined together, they suddenly made no sense. The lectures helped somewhat, but I was not inclined to listen. I wanted to talk or do something. Sitting for an hour and a half trying to make sense of something drove me crazy. I certainly didn't feel comfortable raising my hand. I was a freshman; I didn't know these people; and I certainly didn't want to look stupid.

I held out hope for lab. Here's where the action was. I'd been good at dissecting things, mating fruit flies, and identifying objects in a microscope. I showed up late for my first lab. Not that late, maybe 5 or 10 minutes, because I was lost. By the time I got there, everyone had partnered up, so I had no lab partner. The TA suggested I'd be fine on my own for this one and that we'd work something out next time. Our task for the day was to measure proteins in some oyster. First, we put the oyster in a mortar bowl and pounded it with a pestle to make it nearly liquid. As I began banging on my oyster, desperately looking around to make sure I was doing it right, I also began sneezing. I continued to sneeze every 10 minutes or so throughout the lab, the rest of which is a fog. I vaguely remember taking my oyster to be put in the centrifuge and I remember measuring things, but toward the end of the lab, I'd decided this was it, I was quitting.

After handing in my lab report, I walked down the hall to the professor's office, explaining that I wanted to drop the class. I believe I had a few not so stellar quiz grades under my belt at this point as well as the horrid lab experience. He asked me what I was planning to major in. English, I said. What are you doing in Biology, then? I shrugged. My mother talked me into it, I said. He quickly filled out the appropriate form and handed it to me without really looking at me.

Most of the people I knew who were taking science courses in college were doing so to become doctors. No one said, I want to become a biologist or a botanist or a physicist. Heck, I don't think I ever met a physics major. I was definitely not a careerist. My goal had always been to find a career that I enjoyed. Bonus if it paid well and/or made the world a better place. I explored eight different majors, meeting each time with various faculty advisers to sketch out a course plan: English, French, English plus French, French/International Studies, International Studies alone, Economics, Economics/English, Business/English. There were probably other combinations as well. I think my Econ professor would have loved to have me as an Econ major and I honestly think that would have been a good path for me except that most of the people who were taking Econ were doing so to become business majors and then to go on to get MBAs. Or there were a few who went on to do Accounting and become CPAs. I really enjoyed International Studies because it seemed to me to be academic study put to practical use. The people I knew in International Studies wanted to go work for the State Department or Amnesty International. The problems that needed to be addressed were complex and nuanced. That sounded interesting to me. But when I found myself in an upper level class reading the Monroe Doctrine, I concluded I could not continue.

So I gave up science and the social sciences and settled back into my original major, English. Creative Writing, actually. What I liked about Creative Writing was I could write about anything. If I was interested in something, I'd just go look it up and write something about it. There were no restrictions.

When I graduated from college, I was perfectly happy with my major. I'd gotten into a good grad program. I'd won awards for my writing. Life was good. It is only now that I look back and wonder what would have happened if I'd stuck out that Biology class or if I'd majored in Economics. What kind of career might I have pursued? Because I think I've always been looking for something with a scientific bent to it, a way of asking certain questions and of pursuing the answers to those questions. There's no doubt that I kind of took the easy path. When things got tough, I gave up. If I'd had more support through those tough points, I might have continued. Where that support was supposed to come from, I don't know. At some point, it has to come from within, but before you get to that point, it seems to me, you need someone to help you out a little, to encourage you, to make you feel confident even in those moments where you feel least confident. I certainly think the large class and the unfriendly lab atmosphere did not help me. I needed more attention, and there was no way I was going to get it without being more aggressive, something I wasn't trained to do. Someone might have told me to go get help from the professor, for example. But I wonder if the professor would have discouraged me. After all, I was an English major. My peers were certainly not going to encourage me. College for most of them was simply a rite of passage. It was a place to get away from the parents, drink, find a husband or wife, and get a ticket to a better lifestyle. If anything, they would encourage me to take easy classes so I could go out every night. My parents, too, encouraged me to have a balanced college life. It wasn't all about studying, they said. No one really pushed me. And I didn't have it in me yet to push myself. And so I tended toward the subjects I was good at naturally. I worked hard in college, but I could have worked harder. Things could have been different.