Although I’ve been home from my second year of college a few weeks now, yesterday was the first time my posse from high school was free. It had been a while since Daphne, Jean and I had spent time together and the three of us piled into a single Lay-z-boy chair chatting, taking silly photos, and reminiscing. We graduated from a public school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 2012 and have all pursued separate majors within STEM fields. Although it was a lighthearted gathering involving copious chocolate cake and embarrassing stories, the prospect of the future seemed fixed in our minds and hovered over our conversation.
First I want to tell you a little bit about my background. My parents are both scientists and my dad was even my mom’s professor years ago. Growing up, nearly every dinner conversation was focused on some new data from the lab or the latest edition of Nature. This was obviously extremely boring to a 5 year old with no concept of molecular biology. Although I didn’t think they had any effect on me, much later in my education, I realized that without understanding the content of these discussions, their structure and tone had greatly influenced my thinking. Science is all about questioning the assumed, looking for flaws. As Karl Popper once explained, evidence can only falsify a theory, not prove it. My parents had unintentionally taught me critical thinking as a tool for, well, pretty much anything. I’ve always thought my childhood was a bit of an unintentional experiment. With no exposure to gentle gossip about neighbors, or comments made to please others or earn a laugh, I attacked everything in my life with a platitudinous commitment to analysis.
This has almost certainly stunted my social abilities, but we all live with the blessings and burdens of our childhood. An outcome of mine was that by the age of 13 I was confident I wanted to pursue some sort of molecular based biomedical research. My parents explained that I would either need to do an MD and/or a PhD to make this dream possible. By the time I was 16 years old, the funding crisis convinced me on the security of medicine. In another bargain for security, I ended up applying to 18 universities my senior year of high school. I didn’t have a dream school until I interviewed at Imperial College London School of Medicine, and was lucky enough to be admitted to the 6-year bachelors-MD program. Besides being charmed by the atmosphere of the college, Imperial was the most prestigious school to which I’d been admitted, and would allow me to focus on my interests and finish my training earlier than I would in the USA.
Jean, who is studying chemical engineering at Cornell, developed an interest in product development for pharmacology sometime in high school. “I think the whole concept of drugs just intrigued me… you take some compound and it has this ability to make such a big effect.” Although the pharma industry was a consideration, she says she still wasn’t really sure at the end of high school. “I think [pharma] was my compromise, because I wanted to do something with medicine, but I didn’t think I could handle medical school.” When it came to college applications, she thought being undecided might be a disadvantage and instead labeled herself a chemical engineer.
With no exposure to gentle gossip about neighbors, or comments made to please others or earn a laugh, I attacked everything in my life with a platitudinous commitment to analysis."
I also thought there’d be less competition for it.”
Now that we are halfway (or in my case, almost halfway) through our degrees, the pressure to decide on a next step, perhaps the first earning step of our careers is kicking in. With every move forward we must accept a narrowing of our pathway. Increasingly specialized skills dwindle the number of careers to which our expertise can be fully applied. The highway tightens into a poorly marked trail. This can be incredibly rewarding if we are able to find a niche - a corner of expertise in which we are needed and suited; a place where we have the freedom and ability to forge ahead and carve our own way, but it is also scary. If such a position cannot be found, it will at least require a step sideways and perhaps several steps backwards to change our course.
It is hard to say whether we have done ourselves a favor, holding back at the fork in the road. It might allow our experiences and changing views of the changing world more time to point us in the right direction, but perhaps it has simply kept us from progressing forth into our already known passions. In the end, it is impossible to determine an optimum – we must remember Popper’s lesson. Jumping into trial and error may be the fastest way to find our calling. Perhaps the myth of having a calling is the problem, and a commitment to flexibility would be the surest route to a happy vocation.
The whole point of a Math major was that I can basically do anything later.”
It is difficult to draw a conclusion from such anecdotal evidence, but it is my worry that the students, researchers, and organizations of STEM have been hit by a crippling attachment to security. We have lost our ability to pursue our goals and investigations directly, and instead learned to circle in on our objectives slowly, setting up as many fallbacks as possible. It is a shame that so much energy, money, and effort is poured into these indirect approaches – and that the researchers pursuing them have been forced to work so close to the edge. It may be an effect of hard financial times on a working system, but it may also be a warning sign, a red flag for reform.
It is hard to say whether we have done ourselves a favor, holding back at the fork in the road."