Magical things can happen when you enthusiastically open your mouth on the internet. One of these magical things is learning how personal experience shapes people’s lives. Looking into others causes you to look into yourself. And then something really magical happens – we learn we are not alone. Among our unique, personal experiences lies a universal experience we all share – the events of lives have shaped who we have become to a great extent.
Now, I’m not talking about any genetic versus environmental components here. That’s not what this is about. Somehow there became a “norm” of being in science. Likely a stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood. I refuse to believe it is a holdover from the “good ole days” of science when it was a gentlemen’s club. Surely, if we have unique experiences, trials and tribulations that have defined our very being, so did they.
But this chatter is not saved in the archives of history; it wasn’t broadcasted all over the internet, exposed for all the world to see. Our generation(s) are unique in this regard. We share. A lot. Sometimes, too much, but we persist. We crave acceptance, a comfort in knowing that while we might pride ourselves on our unique attributes we are not also alienated by them.
Science has a way of making us disembody ourselves, divorcing personality from career. But this is that strange “norm” we’ve been beaten over the head with creeping up on us again. Why did we do this to ourselves? The aspects of our mentors we are most surprised at discovering often tend to be personality quirks. My advisor has a hobby?? Plays in a band?? My tenured genetics professor FAILED genetics when they were in college??
Preposterous as it may seem, everyone – even in science – is pretty unique. We of the generations X and Y just talk about it. In fact, the distinguishing characteristic between those scientists online and those offline is our unfathomable ability to not shut up. Somehow, we tend to be just as productive on average. Individual mileage may vary.
So I became interested in these personal stories of people’s rise to a career in science because I wanted to define “traditional” careers. My view of a traditional rise to a career in science involves going to college right after high school, do well and get accepted in a graduate school, do research and graduate, 1-3 postdocs, obtain satisfying job in academia or other research institute.
What I found instead was amazing and eye-opening. To quote a favorite song of mine from Reckless Kelly, “My first love was an angry painful song. I wanted one so bad I went and did everything wrong. A lesson in reality would come before too long. My first love was an angry, painful song.” It’s a song I actually play out live because I identify with it. Yes, that’s right. I play live guitar at a local pub when I can find the time. In fact, I’ve played live for years in a variety of bands since 6th grade. I even went to a vocational school and got a diploma in audio engineering, interning at a recording studio in Oakland, CA. I was laid off during the recording of Green Day’s Warning.
Science was never in my cards. I was bored in high school. It took too long and I could be doing drugs, hitting on girls, practicing songs with my band, creating mischief around town (I don’t think the city ever found their manhole covers…), or any number of things that was NOT school-related. I took the minimum requirements and never once thought about going to college. That was for dorks and preppies, and it cost a lot of money. No. I was certainly destined for rockstardom. How hard could it be, right?
Eventually, I was worn out, laid-off, and in a strange Californian city far from my Iowan roots with no friends, no money, no clue what to do except cook. And I cooked for many years: Frank’s Pizzeria, Applebees, Panera, smoky hole in the wall pubs, upscale delis. I baked for a German castle lodge and was a chef apprentice at a 4 star dining club. My life was a wreck, I kept moving jobs to whoever would pay me a quarter more per hour than the last job. All this didn’t help the drug situation, amphetamines are cook’s best friends, after all.
Having nothing and no one to lean on, I started spending all my time trying to connect with some shred of humanity online. I’d stay up all night just getting shit-faced drunk and hang out with my friends – who existed as clever pseudonyms and cartoonish avatars on my monitor screen. I hung out in an online “pub” on the once popular 6 degrees website during the late 1990s. It was just a chatroom started by some dude, probably just as lonely as confused as I was, but it drew a steady and loyal following. I got to know the participants as if they were my old high school buddies from just a couple years back. Even met a few in person while I was living out of my car bumming around the US and Canada.
One user stood out though, a girl from Sweden. Eventually we chatted on the phone, taking turns calling each other to share the long distance fees. Neither of us were happy in our lives and I somehow convinced her to come over to the US. She saved up money, even working overtime through the millenium New Year’s, bought a plane ticket and headed to San Francisco. I was living across the bay in Berkeley at the time, or as a I called it “Bezerkley”. We fell in love, she overstayed her visa and we eventually got married and 12 years later here we are still madly in love with 2 cute, screechy little horrors running around our knees.
My wife saved my life. I was asking for it, but too proud to ask directly. She believed in me and somehow I found myself enrolled in Vista Community College in Berkeley, CA, later Monterey Peninsula College after leaving Berkeley to get away from the crazy people. With renewed focus I found I was very good at math and science and felt pulled into this area, mostly because of my interest in evolution and ecology. This was cemented after transferring to UC – Davis, a truly wonderful place to be for someone who loves evolution and ecology.
The details are left out from my teenage years and my 20s. Nights spent crying because I felt like a complete failure in life, nights spent on speed, nights spent stoned or drunk, nights spent wondering which store I’m going to steal food, booze and cigarettes from (Always 4pm at one of the gas stations nearby while they did the shift change). I lived off my credit card for months cause I didn’t know what to do. I was crushed I couldn’t work in the music industry and hated having to cook for a living. I just didn’t know how to piece my life together.
Even after the dust settled and I was in a stable relationship and had committed to college, I had no clue how to live life. How to “succeed”?? At each step, I never seemed to comprehend what the next steps were. Graduate school was just as painful, and really an entire post in its own, I get very bitter just thinking about it. But at least during that time I was drug-free, had a caring wife and to my kids I was always a “success”.
As much as I like to think so, my situation was not unique. The details surely are. I hope no one has to go through the self-inflicted emotional torment and turmoil that I endured. But we are all confused and struggle, and the lesson is that we don’t have to do it alone. And it is so hard to tell people this. Especially people who don’t know they are struggling. They aren’t used to it. They’ve emerged from their cocoon and are now a newly hatched butterfly finding their footing facing a murder of hungry crows.
When you’ve been through hell, you can recognize what struggle looks like in other people. It’s painful to watch. I’m watching a friend struggle with his PhD and lab experience right now and won’t talk to anyone about it. He has the “just plow through and get it done” attitude. That’s nice, but it’s not human, and frankly, it won’t work. Yet, this inhuman sort of mind-set is what is drilled into us. It’s revered, respected and part of this mythical “norm”. Science is meant to be soulless, emotionally exempt – yet, we are supposed to all be excited we are doing SCIENCE!
It’s all very confusing and we shouldn’t do it alone.
One of the great things social media has done for the human condition is to aggregate like-minded people. I had the extreme fortune of spending half of last week in Raleigh with the most wonderful 450 people that could ever be assembled in one place – Science Online. One of several unifying characteristics of this group is their love for being social online. This has fostered amazing, productive interactions among people and provided a welcoming atmosphere that tends to be infectious.
Feeling inspired last night after witnessing a disheartening exchange about gender roles – a constant, but important, topic – I made a series of open observations. One thing we do poorly is recognizing diversity of personal experiences and how that shaped who we are at this moment. It is all too easy to lump “scientists” into a group that should conform to the aforementioned mythical “norm”. That’s the easy way out and it negates a long chain of events that led up to who we are today.
Had I not experienced a world of drugs, failure, loneliness and utter confusion I might never have been led to participate strongly online and I might never have met the woman of my dreams who I owe everything I’ve managed to achieve today, and I might never have had this beautiful family that I’ve treasured more than anything, such that a life in academia would interfere so much that 16 hour days would be deemed unacceptable to me. It was this decision that to led to my interest in science communications and evangelism, which led me to use social media and meet this amazing group of dedicated scientists and communicators who wish to be the change they want to see in the culture of science.
The keynote speaker of Science Online, Mireya Mayor, told a similar story. The details are very different, but the lesson is the same. A series of events and emotions and experiences that shaped what she became. Her talk was a case study in how different our lives can be while the end goal can still be similar – doing good science. The overarching lesson was reiterated during Janet Stemwedel’s storytelling about her daughter – “the pretty pink princess” – who was unimpressed with gender-coded science kits for girls. This lesson was that we can still be ourselves and be successful in science. It didn’t matter if you were a cheerleader, a pink princess, or a hairy-legged feminist. Each can do science and has the potential to do it well.
This is when the realization hit me that we all have amazing stories that we bottle up inside us. Perhaps we are embarrassed about them or just think no one cares. So I started the twitter hashtag #IamScience and implored my twitter friends to tweet their “nontraditional” experiences. The response was overwhelming. I’ve included a storify of all the responses below. I’ve read every single one and am truly humbled to be in the wake of such amazing individuals who have overcome so much to be where they are today.
It really hit home for me, though, when @katyannc tweeted: “I’m about to cry reading the #IAmScience tweets. Having a hard time making it out of undergrad and suddenly I don’t feel so alone.” This is why we needed this. Maybe one of us can save someone else’s life because they suddenly don’t feel so alone anymore. That, yes, we can have strange, difficult experiences. We know they affect us, but can’t quite put into words how. The just become part of the thread of our being, a memory or a lesson learned.
I want you to read these. Do you identify with the tweeters? Does it humanize the experience of being part of a culture of science? Where do we go next? I don’t want anyone to feel alone in their ascent through science. To this end I would like to curate a free e-book of submissions from people about their experiences – good and bad, whatever you are willing to share. Put your name on it or keep it anonymous, doesn’t matter, but people need to hear how your experiences in the past shaped who you are today and what you do.
If you are interested in participating in this project, I’d love to hear from you. Please email me at kzelnio at gmail dot com. Submissions are whatever is necessary for you to tell your story, up to 5000 words. Include drawing, sketchpads, poetry, whatever you need to tell your story.
UPDATE: The response has been extremely overwhelming, many personal #IamScience stories are appearing on blogs and the twitter stream hasn’t ended! I’ve aggregated the representative tweets and all the blog posts and personal stories about science at the I AM SCIENCE tumblr. Please follow along and check back there often!