Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Loving, Leaving, and Losing my Science

I never anticipated writing this. And I never wanted to. But I have to.

I did a dramatic career change—like a take-the-wheel-of-the-sailboat-in-a-windstorm and turn it clear 180ยบ—change. You don’t do something like that, unless you feel very strongly. Which I did. It wasn’t easy, my new path. It fact, it almost downright broke me. But I finished what I set out to do, on that leg of the trip at least. I earned my Ph.D., I got a job, and I even published. And I was, for at least 15 years, drinking the Kool-Aid, as they say.

My new job was exciting, in a great place, and it allowed me to share my enthusiasm for science with large and diverse populations of students and visitors eager to engage and learn. It was an amazing opportunity. I still work where I did, but I no longer engage with visitors much. and I am mostly sitting in meetings talking about talking about science, and not actually even talking about science. For a while, that made me sad. Even though I know that, in some vague general sense, I am still doing what I set out to do, working towards educating people about the science that I love.

Until one day recently, I fell out of love. And I can’t tell if a cloud has lifted, or newly descended on me. But I feel different. A series of smaller events led to this, one of which was realizing that their are many people out there practicing science who are “in it ” in a way that I am just. not. anymore. no matter how hard I try. I am now a peripheral administrator, where my scientific skills are seen as a funny little quirk at best, and a nuisance at worst, to those around me in my department. But I am tired of fighting.

And more severely, I can’t remember what I am fighting for. Why is science, and exploring and understanding the natural world, so damn great anyway? Because some old British dude several centuries ago told us the world changes, and then species change, and we have been lionizing him for years? And really, why should we encourage anyone to be a natural scientist? So, you work your butt off, but then cannot get a decent job, and you are working as an adjunct with no health insurance? Where does your love of bats, birds and snakes leave you now? It’s hard to explore the natural world, when you have no money. And further, its just a goddamn privilege to do this kind of work. As in, you are privileged if you can. Extremely.

And what then, are we doing, guiding students and visitors into some kind of butterfly covered fantasyland where people can sit around and think and hike and collect specimens and write about it?  What false hope are we selling here? That doesn’t pay the bills. And more importantly, it is just a value system. One that I have been blindly following for years, because I thought it was beautiful, and virtuous, and I liked something of the romance of it. So it held meaning for me.

But it is not important for many people to know about these things, let alone care, or pursue natural science and evolution as a field of study. No matter how many times we say “learning about the past teaches us about the future”, or “evolution is happening all around us”, it still is just not a day-to-day necessity. It’s like a gorgeous painting. Something to esthetically enjoy, if you have the chance, and the luxury of doing so.

We worked with at-risk youth, they came to us, and we taught them about Neanderthals. They are struggling in high school. But what can Neanderthals teach them that they can use in their every day lives? Imagine that your grades are shitty, everyone is pissed at you, and your friends suck too -- but let’s learn about “what makes us human”, because that’s really going to save you. No. it’s not. It just isn’t. and I feel almost sick thinking that I thought it might “be good for them” in some way. It’s not even on their high school curriculum. Not even close.

But I suppose it’s just like anything, a benign distraction from the pain of every day life. A Neanderthal might as well be a blooming peony, or a glass of wine. It’s just something to pass the time and focus on, in between deciding what to eat, or where to sleep, or who to love.

And in the last few years, there is a big emphasis on attracting diverse and new audiences to science. I have two issues with this: one is that it is easy to say, but putting this into practice means letting go of old ways of doing things (which I am all in support of), but I am just not sure that science is ready for that, its all its manifestations. After all, it is a club (of sorts) with rules both written and unwritten. And I think people underestimate how much they cling to, and subscribe to these “club rules” as part of their identity as scientists. What about letting that all go? and letting people really do things and think things in entirely new ways?

And secondly, diverse audiences, who may be new to science as a career possibility—have we ever asked them, do you really want to be a part of this anyway? aren’t we making an assumption that people even want to be part of this nerdy, half-way-to-loser, club anyway. And, in all seriousness and peak blossom of my current crisis: what is the actual point of this anyway?

And now. just. like. that. I have nothing to love. and not Paranthropus, or Pan paniscus, or even a starling can save me now I am afraid. I am a shell where science-love formerly lived.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

My life with six legs

My first true experience was in Brooklyn, while I was an art school student. It visited me in my bathroom. I was stricken and horrified. I had never seen anything like it before. So large, and dark, and so quick, like an dirty uninvited wind-up-toy. So, I immediately grabbed Janson’s History of Art text book and dropped it on the poor bugger. I didn’t lift it up for weeks. Needless to say, I never studied.

Next, I was working in the genetics lab on a summer evening wearing a flowered skirt. Oh how I loved the zen of pipetting tiny amounts of clear liquid and counting the tubes. No one was around. And I was free to grandiosely imagine how my tedious work was making a big impact on the world. Or something. I felt a tickle on my leg. I thought it was nothing. I felt it again. Then I looked down and it was crawling on my bare leg. I screamed and jumped up and down many, many times. It eventually crawled away, and I was traumatized for the rest of the summer. Every beautiful summer breeze and happy tickle was now a giant (1.6 inch) American cockroach (Periplaneta americana)*. Why was I pipetting in the evening wearing a flowered skirt? That’s another story.

I do love working from home, and when I was writing up my dissertation I was at home a lot. Much cleaning and procrastinating and tea drinking occurred. Some writing did too. I had just washed a bunch of dishes, and I was boiling water for my second tea of the day. Then, I saw the two long elegant antennae slowly twisting and emerging on top of the mountain of my clean dishes. It perched its large pulsating body over a clean white bowl. The tea kettle screamed before I could. And I took the boiling water and dumped it on the proud invertebrate. It fell into the bowl and died. This was quite cruel, and although at the time this seemed like a clean way of killing it. I feel sorry for it now. I didn’t get much writing done that day. But eventually I did manage to finish my dissertation.

In the last few years, I have taken to doing yoga at home. It stresses me out to do yoga in a class with others, and to schlep to the class and back. So yoga at home is the perfect remedy for my twisted up and churning anxieties. I had just laid down my head on the blue foam mat, and started taking deep long breaths. Ready to begin my healing. from the stupid day. and all the ugliness that had crept in. And then it came. I watched it strolling, boldly, intently on to my mat. It was really big. Nothing zen about it. I gasped and jumped up. and I didn’t destress that day after all. I stressed.

I was lying on my blue velvety couch, sad. my hair was spilling onto the side pillows. and I felt a little flicker. and with that, perhaps the most vivid nightmare yet. I had almost convinced myself to calm down, and to silence my irrational fears. To live a better, calmer, life. and then I shot up and saw the giant roach on the pillow of my couch, one that had most certainly been caressing my hair seconds before. Anyway, I couldn’t focus on being sad anymore. because now I was just too disturbed.

One morning, I was riding a razors-edge of late-to-work-ness. As I closed my apartment door, I saw one. Dead. Under the kitchen table, where I don’t eat. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I decided to deal with it later. When I returned home, it was gone. utterly and completely. Swallowed up into the underbelly of a hidden apartment ecosystem. A feast to which I was not invited. Equal parts astonished, thankful and horrified. I just went on with my evening.

Yesterday, I saw one dead and upside-down in the bathroom at work. At my job, where we celebrate all species across the tree of life, with cool scientific eyes. I looked down at it intently, and inspected its plump legs. And it reminded me of all the weird and intense times that this species has waltzed into, and onto, my little life. I have come to expect their visits now, and somehow their frequency seems to punctuate important stages of my life. But I realized that I am no longer afraid in the same way I was in Brooklyn, or in the lab, or even on the yoga mat.

Their visits have taught me to trust my dark thoughts, because your fears can walk right up on to your bare leg, or rustle your hair—but eventually you can learn to look at them with a more objective gaze, see them in a new fluorescent light—and maybe even appreciate some aspects of their pesky and glorious resilience. They are, after all, always there with you.

* all cockroach individuals mentioned here were of the species Periplaneta americana and approximately 1.6 inches (4 cm) in length. The smaller species don’t quite have the same presence.