Why would you go and do THAT?

17 July 2014 by Paige Brown Jarreau, posted in Education

“Kid, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

"I’m going to be a writer!"

Silence.

"Or a dolphin trainer. Or a doctor like my dad."

Fast forward.

I’m a nerdy teenager who likes to dream big. One of my favorite memories from my homeschooling experience is sitting down in our sunroom every week with a heavily pierced and tattooed creative writing tutor who moonlighted as a fire baton-twirler. She would open a book of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, point to one, and tell me to write. Anything. No thinking, no formal sentence structure. It was stream of consciousness, poetic freedom, and it was beautiful. I used the words undulating and scintillating many times over. And oddly enough, I think science crept in. Undulating waves on a primordial soup of a sea. A scintillating, pre-eukaryotic freedom.

Blue and Green Music, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1921. Public Domain.

Blue and Green Music, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1921. Public Domain.

Fast forward.

I am a biological engineering undergraduate student at LSU. I make a terrible engineer in my own opinion – creative without the strict eye for structural details, load-bearing scenarios and factors of safety. I’m a brilliant biologist though. My fortes include memorizing molecular pathways and the intricate inner details of cells. That, and I had mad skills at confocal microscopy – lab meetings were spent oohing and aahing over the fluorescent micro-structures I managed to capture under the scope.

But somewhere along the way, the creativity was lost on long nights of cell culture and preparing intricately designed nanoparticles only to hand them over to postdocs. I lost the sense of understanding and contributing to a bigger picture. I was a single cog in a laboratory wheel, and I didn’t have any sense that what I was doing mattered.

Aren't they pretty? My confocal image of fluorescent DNA nanoparticles in HeLa cells, a human cancer cell line.

Aren't they pretty? My confocal image of fluorescent DNA nanoparticles in HeLa cells, a human cancer cell line.

So I decided to start a blog. I mean, who wouldn’t? From The Lab Bench was born, named by my now husband because, quite naturally, I was bringing science to my readers ‘from the lab bench’! Little did I know – but perhaps it had been there all along – that soon thereafter I would indeed be moving from the lab bench to the field and study of science communication. Breaking that move to my PhD adviser in biomedical engineering wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, though.

A career mentor told me this when I consulted her before telling my adviser at the time: “I wouldn’t let that cat out of the bag yet. If you tell your prof your plans to pursue science writing, he will probably write you off…” (Ironic) “…and not take you as seriously as he will the other research grads.”

But I did let the cat out of the bag. I couldn’t help it. When I told him, he was about to go on a trip overseas for several months.

“Science writing?? Why would you want to be a science writer? Don’t go and do something stupid like quitting while I’m gone.”

I did.

Fast forward again.

“Why would you want a PhD in mass communication to practice science communication? You don’t need a PhD for that.”

Got it, PhD is for research. Wait…

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t leave the lab bench because I didn’t enjoy research. I LOVE research! I love exploring questions, collecting data and testing my hypotheses. I love thinking up new research designs.

If there is anything scientific training gives you, it’s the ability to apply the scientific method to almost any question you approach. And THAT is a powerful thing. This is the only reason a move from a PhD program in biomedical engineering to a PhD program in mass communication is even possible. That and a flexible mind. Believe me when I tell you, I didn’t take a lick of English, writing or mass communication in undergrad. I avoided those courses like the plague. I believe I got by with a whopping humanities course load of two: psychology and theatre and my first ‘B’.

But I enjoy research most when I see the big picture. I enjoy it when I can talk to people about problems they are seeing in the real world, like a struggling-to-survive science journalism ecosystem, and learn more about those problems in order to help solve them. I enjoy it when the research has meaning for me and for the people I interact with. I enjoy putting my expertise into all the different facets of research: designing the study, carrying it out, collecting the data, analyzing the data, sharing the data and translating the data into meaningful narratives for other researchers and science communicators. I enjoy sharing knowledge and co-creating knowledge with people who aren’t necessarily scientists themselves, because they have insights that I don’t.

You see, being the ‘lab rat’ who created the nanoparticles and then handed them off, like a cog in a well-oiled research machine, was not ‘research’ to me. It was work. Which is fine, but it wasn’t work that used all those different parts of my brain that I’d been training for so long – the designing, the problem-solving, the interpreting, the writing, the storytelling. The creativity.

Jason Snyder from Washington, DC, United States. Wiki.

With all due respect to these (un)willing subjects and work horses of our scientific discoveries, I like to know more than the lab rat. Jason Snyder from Washington, DC, United States. Wiki.

Why do we so often partition research and practice? Get a M.S. if you want to go into the ‘real world’ afterwards, we say. Get a PhD if you are ready to do nothing but research (and ideally stay in academia), we say. Why are these even real dichotomies?

I started a PhD in mass communication because I wanted to be immersed in the communication aspects of science. I wanted to live and breathe science communication, to learn as much as I could as a ‘late bloomer’ in this field. And if that included doing research in science communication, I was ready for it!

Being a PhD student who studied science communication but didn’t practice science communication was never my plan. I didn’t see why I shouldn’t go for a PhD in this field if my goal was to become a better science communicator, or a better science blogger, or a better science journalist.

I guess you could say I’ve been asked a lot of variations on the question, ‘Why would you go and do that?’

And the answer, as always, is because I feel like it. Because something inside of me has always screamed for not just risk-taking, but a balance of interests. And because darn it, why can’t I do it all? And why can’t you?

If there is one thing I’d like to leave you with, it’s this: Don’t follow all the rules. Don’t listen to every piece of advice. If you are a PhD student, spend a good portion of the time you are *supposed* to be spending on research doing things you are passionate about tangential to your research. And if your career decisions make sense to no one by yourself, you might be onto something!


8 Responses to “Why would you go and do THAT?”

  1. Maddie Stone Reply | Permalink

    I'm a PhD student in environmental science. I started my PhD knowing I probably didn't want to follow a traditional academic career path, and that feeling was intensively solidified during my first year. But I've stuck with it, because I knew I wanted to go into science communication, and I felt that understanding the scientific process in its entirety would make me a better communicator. Lucky for me, my advisor has been extremely supportive throughout this process. In addition to being a science grad student, I blog, volunteer at a local science museum, work with city government to evaluate soil contamination in community gardens, and write science fiction (working on the publishing part :). It's been an amazing journey and I wouldn't have it any other way! My advice to other grad students is always to have the courage to follow your intuition. Nobody else knows what your path should be, no matter how much they'd like to tell you they do.

    • Paige Brown Jarreau Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Maddie! You have a GREAT story! I hope other PhD students can be inspired by you to pursue goals not directly related to their scientific research or academic life. Also, SO glad to hear your adviser is supportive!! I hope this is happening more and more.

  2. Maddie Stone Reply | Permalink

    So do you, Paige! Culture changes slowly (especially in academia, it seems), but I think by speaking up and telling our stories we really can have an impact. Coincidentally, I'm reading a book right now about social networks (http://connectedthebook.com/) and it's really opening my eyes to how much the actions of people around us shape our own beliefs :-)

  3. Matt Russell Reply | Permalink

    Excellent post, Paige. I can see a lot of similarities in our interests, curiosities, and career paths. I was cautioned after I received my PhD when I told my advisor I was taking a science writing position. "Once you go down that path, it's almost like you can't come back." Come back to what? Years and years of postdoc positions waiting to hopefully find a faculty position somewhere?

    Great piece!

  4. Tom Huntington Reply | Permalink

    Very inspiring story, Paige, for high school and college students, as well as science students and science writers.

    Congratulations on knowing what you wanted and being able to choose your own career path in the face of naysaying advice. Your story also reminds me of how easy it is for other people to think they know what's best for you without any accountability for their advice. Wonder if people (including mentors and coaches) would be so free and opinionated with their advice if there were some accountability consequences for their advice.

    Methinks your homeschooling experience was an important contributing factor in your skill at knowing what you want. Our current educational system (for the most part), even at the highest levels, does not encourage independent, creative thinking. I was taught to do what the teachers wanted/expected me to do. I was very successful at it (choice of full scholarship to Stanford or Princeton), but I had no clue about what I wanted -- no independent/creative thinking skills, no realistic self-awareness skills.

    As you "make your mark" in the "practice" and "doing" of Science Communication (which you already are doing, from what I can tell), I hope you will include, as one of your missions, to help young people realize the importance of knowing their own values and strengths/weaknesses and passions when choosing a career path and that not even the most caring, well-meaning, teacher, counselor, mentor, parent, can know what's best for you. Glad you knew/know/are committed to what's best for you career-wise!

    • Paige Brown Jarreau Reply | Permalink

      Tom,

      What a wonderful comment, thank you! I never thought of it, but yes, homeschooling definitely taught (or at least assumed / demanded?) self-motivation and self-direction. So THAT is why I'm always going my own way! :) But seriously, your comment on the need for teachers/professors/mentors to encourage students to also go their way, not the teacher's/professor's way, is spot on. I'm afraid many students don't learn that self-direction and independent thinking till very late (grad school??). I am very committed to encouraging students to pursue ideas, career-paths, research, etc. that is off the beaten path and that other academics might not agree with.

  5. Annie Bygrave Reply | Permalink

    Paige
    I very much like what you have written in this post. If only I had had the inspiration to follow my creative and authorship urges alongside my scientific career I know I would have been a lot happier and a lot less frustrated. It's all very well being a cog in someone else's wheel if you are a lab rat but so many of us have much more to offer. I was an A grade student in English and Art but they stayed pretty much unused in my work placements!

    I gave up science in 2009. I suspect I would have stayed if I had had the opportunity to influence the direction of the research, as well as to write and publish it. Everyone needs to grow.

    However, there is no time like the present, and researching and editing a friend's book has been a great experience. Next, it will be my own book! Meanwhile I redecorate house interiors and let properties out for a living. Lots of scope for colour and form there :-D

    Keep it up and thank you for the inspiring blog!!

    Annie

  6. Lynn Kimlicka Reply | Permalink

    Hi Paige,

    A great piece! I can certainly relate to the things you write about. I didn't dare announce my science blog until I finished my PhD program out of fear that I wouldn't be taken seriously as a trainee. Now that I have graduated, people ask me what I am or will be doing, and when I answer that I am blogging and I will be a science writer, it is usually met with a bewildered face and an awkward silence...

    I'm very glad to know that I am not alone in this career path, and it gives me so much courage! I also admire the way you turned your struggles (what PhD student who decides to leave the main-stream academia wouldn't have struggles?) into an amusing and inspiring narrative.

    Cheers to all "late bloomers" :)

    Lynn

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