I have a weird little masochistic hobby – I often ask my friends how these decided to become scientists.
The answer is almost without exception some combination of: I always loved science…I loved the science fair…as a kid I wanted to know how things work…I was always fiddling with engines/chemicals/ant farms (or whatever).
That wasn’t me. As a little girl I wanted to be a waitress, and when I got a little older I couldn’t wait to be a lifeguard. As I entered my teen years, Ally McBeal was popular on tv, so I thought maybe I could be a lawyer. I sort of liked my science classes, but I liked my other classes just as much. I was required to participate in the school science fair in second and fifth grades. I didn’t understand the point of the assignment, so my dad pretty much did my projects for me. I didn’t build things or fix things or exhibit an undeniable curiosity about the way the world works. So yeah, I feel a little lame when my friends tell me about their lifelong love of science. I also feel a little ambivalent when I see students guided toward internships and career preparation at younger and younger ages.
So how did I get into science? Well, I wasn’t exactly un–interested. The lifeguard job wasn’t a waste of time either. I had to test and maintain the pH and chlorine levels in the pool, maintain first aid and CPR proficiency, and become very comfortable in the water. So I was studying chemistry and physiology while developing skills that would be very useful in my later field work. I also spent a couple summers working in a biology lab, grinding up grasses and scraping soil as part of a prairie restoration study. It was a good opportunity to learn about research, but honestly kind of boring on a day-to-day basis (yes, sometimes it’s like that). I had a cool high school biology teacher who taught us to identify bird calls from a vinyl record. I had a fantastic physics teacher who used rockets and roller coasters to teach mechanics. I had a chemistry teacher who demonstrated that she could walk on a path full of broken glass…I’m not sure what that had to do with chemistry, and…oh yeah, don’t try that at home. As I was going through high school I was good at lots of things and not sure which direction to go. I worried about it a lot. Shouldn’t I know? Didn’t everyone? What if I picked the wrong thing?
So honestly, I just picked something that seemed interesting. I was incredibly fortunate to have a generous scholarship from the University of Miami. It seemed like a 180-degree turn from the Chicago suburb where I had grown up, an opportunity to go somewhere very different. And if I was going to go to Miami, I might as well study marine biology. They had (and have) a world-class program. They were also extremely generous with Advanced Placement credits, so I tested out of a ridiculous number of introductory classes and I was able to start right away with specialized marine science classes. It really was a whole new world! In my first semester, we were scheduled for a field trip to the mangroves. I had never heard of a mangrove before going on that trip. And it went on from there. Every year I got a little deeper into it, and every year I felt a little more passionate about the field of study.
I think it’s ok to lack a strong vocation, to be unsure which path to choose. If I were to give one piece of advice to young students, it would be not to worry too much. Olympic gymnasts and concert pianists need to specialize and start training very early. The rest of us can usually take a little time to dip our toes into a couple different ponds. Do some research, make the best choice you can based on your instincts and experience, and give yourself permission to change your mind down the road.
Postscript: Science fairs still baffle me. I know some students really enjoy it and might find it a way to express some kind of genuine curiosity, but in other cases it just seems really contrived. For me, as a second-grader, I couldn’t identify any burning scientific question and identify a tractable way to answer it. So the other option was to pick some lame canned project out of a book. Not that interesting to me. Fortunately, Dad was more interested and helped me put together a demonstration of geometric strength for second grade and a demonstration of Archimedes Principle for fifth grade. I still remember those projects, so I guess that means…??? [Note to local students: don’t ask me to be a science fair mentor, I’m obviously completely unqualified].