Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why I am not a scientist: Part 1

When I was about 9, I declared I was going to be a writer. Specifically, I was going to be a poet. I wrote sing-song rhyming poems in school whenever I had the opportunity. I put together little books of poetry or whole stories in rhyme for my parents for Christmas, Mother's Day and Father's Day. I declared that when I was a famous poet, I would buy my parents a big house and take them on expensive vacations. I was lucky, I guess, that my parents didn't laugh me out of the house. They neither encouraged nor discouraged this poetic tendency of mine. I didn't just write poetry; I wrote stories too, always getting accolades for my work in in school. In fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Cooper, helped me submit one of my stories to Stone Soup. The story was a tale of a man hit by a mysterious illness while he was exploring "deepest darkest Africa."1 Eventually, it was discovered that the illness was caused by the Tse Tse Fly and was in fact, malaria. But for a while, everyone suspected foul play. My teacher helped me type up the story and together we wrote a cover letter and sent it off. It took months for them to respond. In fact, by the time I heard from them, I was in 6th grade. One day my Science teacher, Mr. Redmond sat me down and handed me the rejection letter. It was a nice letter, really, explaining that they liked my story, but that they just didn't have room for it.

What does all this have to do with my becoming or not becoming a scientist? Well, first of all, the story itself was kind of science-y. In fact, many of my stories were. I wrote about a planet beyond Pluto that was actually heated by a nearby star just hot enough to heat one side of Pluto enough to create a temperate climate that was then plunged into serious winter. But the people had learned to cope. Secondly, after the rejection, my confidence in my writing career pretty much plummeted. I wasn't completely devastated or anything. I just thought, okay, so I'm not that great at this. Let's see what else is out there.

And there were lots of other things I liked, one of them being Science. Mr. Redmond, the science teacher who broke the rejection to me, was a great teacher. Not only did he teach me about science, but he taught me how to take notes and do research, how to ask questions and do experiments. Starting in 6th grade, in fact, I have lots of memorable science moments. I remember distinctly learning about Mendel and genetics. I had to do a report on oil as an energy source (it was the 70s and we drew lots for which energy source to report on; I wanted solar). In 7th grade, I remember dissecting a squid (yes, PZ, a squid) and getting its backbone out in one piece. I carefully wrapped the squid backbone and an eyeball and the brain in a brown paper towel and carried it home. My dad proceeded to throw it away, thinking it was a wad of trash. Oh, the obstacles! But that was the year I went on a dissection rampage. I started dissecting things outside of class--crawfish, worms, frogs. Armed with lots of lysol and some curiosity, my friends and I took apart all kinds of creatures. I also collected rocks, labeling them all very carefully. In 8th grade, I had less of these moments, in part because my teacher sucked, but still I put together my science fair project on the science of wine, actually making my own batch of, I'm told, not very good wine.

Through the "gifted" program, I began taking computer science. I liked working with computers. I think there were about ten of us. I'm sure there was another girl, but I don't remember there being one. We mostly played computer games using a cassette player and a Tandy or on the brand new Apple IIe. Lemonade Stand anyone? But we also created flow charts and wrote programs in BASIC. I'll admit, I didn't love this part. It just wasn't very satisfying writing programs that did nothing more than write "Hello World" on the screen or calculate complex equations. We did have a way to make the computer talk and it was fun to make it say, "Fuck you" and "shit". No, we didn't have much supervision.

But I also returned to the idea of writing. In part, I was driven by competition. A new girl had moved to town and she was scary smart. She also had scary hair. But she had a nice rock collection and she'd written five books! Not published mind you, but still. And so, I went back to this idea of becoming a writer, holding that torch and ignoring the fact that I was good at science and good at math, and that there were a lot of things I liked about it.

To be continued . . .

1 Let's ignore the racism for a moment, because yes, there was a native assistant, Thursday, I think. And yes, it was somewhat misinformed.