I Am Science…and a Nerd

I am a nerd. I was a nerd. I will be a nerd.

Perhaps in kindergarten I wasn’t, where nerdom had difficulty establishing itself among the simple lessons of the alphabet, counting, and colors.  In kindergarten, we are more or less the same in deficiencies and achievements.

But after that, I am pretty confident my geek flag flew.  I cannot remember ever being a bad student. Repeated straight A’s and the honor role defined me.

However, in the sixth grade is when I remember myself as being different. I enjoyed classes and eagerly awaited my daily science class with Mr. Shook. I was a founding member of our school’s first computer club where we wrote simple Basic code on Commodore 64s. I still remember how to change the screen color, POKE 53280. My favorite part of the year was building a contraption to prevent a raw egg from breaking when dropped 20 feet.  My successful egg landing system comprised of an egg surrounded by several attached sealed air bags, a design I am confident NASA borrowed when they landed the first rover on Mars. My other favorite part of that year was when my parents surprised me with my very own Commodore 64. I could stay up all night poke’ing if necessary. I enjoyed reading books outside those assigned by teachers. One of my favorite activities was flipping through the pages of my family’s encyclopedia set, despite the set being an heirloom nearly thirty years out of date.

It was clear I was not like my classmates. Nor would I ever be.

By seventh grade, I suffered from a full-blown case of the nerds. I was different and different is not tolerated in primary school.  Consequently, junior high and high school were a five-year nightmare. My life was an after school special or movie where the nerd, or nerd collective, faces a group of jocks, bullied, and denied the girls of their dreams. Unlike those specials and movies that I still absolutely love, I did not emerge a hero, get the girl, or suddenly become cool.  I waited for a climax and resolution that did not happen until much later in my life.

I made myself physically ill before school on most days with the anxiety about how the day might unfold. I was hazed, picked on, bullied, and beat up both physically and emotionally.  I still brandish a half inch scar along my right eye from where a fist with a class ring, backed by a jock, tore my flesh after I dared to be different from everyone else.

I made decisions in high school based on what would make me less of nerd and might lessen my torment. Should I play sports? Yes, because that would reduce my nerd levels. A decision, because of my general lack of athleticism and nerd-like ways, brought even more and unparalleled torment in the athletic locker rooms.  I didn’t join the marching band, despite loving music and desperately wanting to learn to play an instrument, because I thought it would make me nerdier. Of course these and other decisions did not remedy the situation.

My goal was simply survive this part of my life.

I eventually quit most extracurricular activities, trying to find the shadows, and not draw attention to myself. I avoided dances, sporting events, parties, and did not go on my senior trip.  In a rural school with a graduating class of 45 there was little hiding and no nerd peer group for refuge. My only refuges were the advanced math and science classes that my peers had no interest in.  I do remember fondly my sophomore year when a senior, a football star positioned centrally in the in-crowd, in my algebra class propositioned me with a deal.  In exchange for allowing him to copy my homework and tests, he would keep others from tormenting me.  I accepted the offer quickly because the pain of being dishonest was less than the pain of consistently being a victim.

I eventually left that hell as valedictorian. I remember the difficulty of trying to deliver a speech during my graduation that did not include the words “Fuck You”.

In a small liberal arts college I finally found my reprieve.  I was finally surrounded by a nerd cast, equally excited about learning all science and humanities had to offer for only $20,000 of debt per year.  Like most smart students with an interest in science and no science role models, I pursued a pre-med program.  I actually had an interest in robotics but the young field and my rural school afforded little opportunities or guidance on how to pursue such a career.  My first semester of college, I rudely awakened to the fact I did not fit in with another group, pre-med students.  I barely passed cell biology and physiology was a painful and long semester.  I also realized I did not really seem to be like other pre-med students.  Again I was different. I was interested in bigger questions and synthesis, not memorization and regurgitation of facts.

When my ecology class arrived, I realized my path.  Amidst the personal agony of my primary schooling, I had forgotten truly wonderful moments.  Hunting and fishing with my father.  Exploring the woods and streams around our rural home.  Heading to the creek or natural dam to swim.  And most importantly trips with my father to the Gulf of Mexico to fish and explore the beaches. I loved nature and science, finding simultaneously a refuge and new frontiers in them.  I wanted to know how the oceans worked.  I wanted to be a marine biologist.

How I became a deep-sea biologist was fortuitous. I applied for a Research Experience for Undergraduates program at UMass Boston for a summer project studying coral reef fish and scuba diving in St.Croix. So did every other undergraduate.  I was not selected but instead got an invitation from my second choice.  A choice I only picked because it was the only other marine biology project.  I would spend the summer indoors, doing marine biology by measuring hundreds of tiny deep-sea snails under the microscope. Admittedly, I was not originally excited about the project but living in Boston for the summer was a lot better than working a minimum wage gig and living with my parents for the summer. That summer my advisor’s passion and enthusiasm for body size and the deep sea were contagious, so much so that I continue this research today.

I remained a nerd. While others on the morning commute in Boston’s public transit were reading Cosmo or Sports Illustrated, I was reading an 853 page tome on numerical ecology for my dissertation and loving it. I learned how to program in Matlab to make digital shells based on logarithmic spirals just for fun (and got frustrated when it took me a semester to figure out).

Today I am still a nerd.  That has not changed.

When Kevin started the I Am Science initiative.  I did not believe I had an interesting story worth penning and sharing.  I did the normal thing…loved science and pursued it without interruption on a straight path through graduate school, postdoctoral fellowships, and now a faculty position.  I had forgotten my story and why it was important.

Something changed that in July.  A contributor at Forbes said this about me, “he’s a geek and he did his homework.”  Although, not the nerd epithet tossed my direction by peers earlier in my life, it was of the same ilk.  But unlike my 17-year-old self, my 37-year-old self is excited by this proclamation.

But that means something different to me now.  Instead of despising being a nerd, I welcome and revel in it.  I surround myself with both an off and online community that values, embraces, and celebrates being a nerd.  We are the new chic geek.  We are everywhere and we control the signal.

I am a nerd and now I own that.  I am proud that I am a geek. I love science fiction, Battlestar Galactica, reruns of Quantum Leap, Firefly, staying up late writing about science for this blog, answering my friend’s questions on Facebook about science, reading about science, doing science, and searching the internet for new Aquaman swag.

I love that I don’t have what others would call a job or career. This is just simply my life. I get a paycheck but it is difficult to separate what I get paid for and what is just me living my life.  I earn a salary to do what I love.  I am marine biologist. I play with whale sharks (gently), dive in submersibles, use million dollar robots to explore the deep oceans, and can claim scuba equipment on my tax returns as business items.  And even better, all these contribute data that I can play with on my big damn computer (of which I am very proud of). And even if the marine biologist plan doesn’t work out, my back plan is to be an equally nerdy entomologist or a parasitologist.

I fear my story of a bullied nerd is not unique.  This is the reason why I felt compelled to contribute my personal I Am Science.  In the vein of an initiative I very much admire, It Gets Better, I hope this post lends itself to a struggling youth grappling with their own nerdom.

Own it.  Love it. Define yourself.

For all my struggles, I have won.  And so will you.



Dr. M (1801 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Additionally, Craig is obsessed with the size of things. Sometimes this translated into actually scientific research. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.

10 Replies to “I Am Science…and a Nerd”

  1. Great article!!! We covered this a couple episodes back “What is a Nerd”? On our N3rdG4sm Podcast. Very interesting to see the similar points of view.

  2. Thanks for sharing! Surviving and flourishing is the greatest revenge. Nerds just love something that is not “cool” passionately and (hopefully) get to a make living at it. Sharing your passion and nerdom with other like-minded geeks can make your world so much bigger and brighter than the alternative. Wouldn’t change it for anything. BTW, your story is very similar to mine in many ways just without the young, gay kid growing up in a homophobic, religious family and town AND overcoming homophobia in science part.

  3. Hurrah for geeks! not gLeeks cause I for one can’t carry a tune to save my life! But for all of us that were called names, stayed indoors, hated PE, etc… we have a job that like Dr. M. said is really more of a lifestyle. Hard to imagine that we can get paid for doing something that we love (and wear shorts, t-shirts, and sandals). To other potential geeks out there – embrace it and in this digital world, reach out and seek input and advice from others. it does get better!
    thanks Dr. M. for a great post.

  4. Great job, Craig! I loved it. A story remarkably similar to my own (although I managed to escape grade school without any physical scars – just the emotional ones). Nerd and proud!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing, Craig. It’s great to see that someone so successful experienced some of the same bumps and bruises as the rest of us!

  6. Wow peek and poke you make remember I had the commodore 64 and I spent the whole summer attached to the box while other guys were at the swimming pool, beautiful!

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