Liberate tutame ex infernis

How I learned to stop being myself…

Over the past ten years I have gradually given up the childish dream I had of having a Ph.D. in science.  I now have a Master’s degree, but the road to not having a Ph.D. led me to realizing that my interests actually lay elsewhere.  I have embarked on a career of fiction writing, after realize that what really matters to me is clear expression of language and beautiful concepts, and telling stories.  Over the course of graduate school I sunk to denying my personality, a process that I am just getting over.  Yesterday I got my appendix taken out, and I feel those surgeons took out a whole lot of fear and conflict I was having over showing people who I really am.  For lack of a better concept, in graduate school and in the jobs I had before graduate school, I tried really hard not to be myself.  I unwittingly agreed to this when I joined the lab.

Graduate school socialization is organized in units called “labs.”    The lab I worked in from 2008 to 2014 was not a real laboratory with expensive equipment and glassware.  Instead, there was a tea kettle, a long lunch table, and a chalkboard.  I don’t know where my advisor’s taste for tea came from (I do know where mine came from: England), but I’ve always attributed the long table to her Italian heritage and a connection between food and socialization.  I knew about this connection from my “Italian brother” and his family and my trips to Italy, where anyone who wasn’t eating or socializing was hobbling on her way to church with a bonnet on her grey hair.  The reason for the chalkboard was obvious-we were studying the mathematics of evolution-but the tea kettle and the long table definitely said something about this lab.  When I interviewed, seeing these three things made feel at home.  I definitely wanted to spend the foundational years of my career in this place.

Lunch was an event in our lab.

Lunch was an event in our lab. The fridge, covered in warnings that it was for food only (not for radioactive materials or tissue samples), was almost always full, and quite often smelling of food that someone forgot about.  The long table could comfortably host a department-wide party, and frequently people from other labs came in to have lunch.  Most of the time, the conversation revolved around science.  We discussed new papers we had read, new methods we were trying out, new projects, and programming languages, usually with me rolling my eyes when people complained about their problems with software licenses and Microsoft Word.  I and the others trained in the proper tools of mathematics would look at each other, telepathically communicating “If you would just use LaTeX….”

Quite often, however, the conversation would get around to regular-old conversation.  Not small talk, usually, but hobbies, music and movies, and the latest pregnancy in the department.  If you’re thinking this is TMI/private, then you’re probably younger than twenty-five.  Most people in our lab were between thirty and forty and that’s what people talk about: who’s pregnant, how’s it going, why the hell do doctors treat pregnancy like a disease, I’m glad we didn’t have to do IVF like so-and-so is going through, what about adoption, breastfeeding, I don’t think mucus plugs are a good lunchtime conversation, etc.

Picture of spacecraft with the text "Infinite size, Infinite Terror"
“Fuck this ship”

One day the topic of science fiction films came up.  My advisor was a more-than-casually-versed fan of Star Trek, Terry Brooks, Tolkien and so on.  I was just getting into reading fantasy when I interviewed there, so finding Harry Potter on the shelf next to computer manuals and biology textbooks was interesting and encouraging.  Someone mentioned the film Event Horizon, and I went into an enthusiastic recitation of my favorite lines:

“The shortest distance between two points in space is not a straight line.  The shortest distance between two points in space (caesura) is zero.”

“The dark inside me…”

“Liberate tutame ex infernis,” and my absolute favorite “Fuck this ship.”

My advisor planted her yogurt cup on the table, gestured with her spoon, and asked “You actually liked that movie?”

I flushed with embarrassment like a Young-Adult heroine.  I put on my most confident voice and said “I liked it because I thought some parts of it were funny.”

That was bullshit.  I loved that movie.  I don’t think it’s a great film, but I did think it was a good story, the acting was just the right kind of overdramatic, and the scientific premise behind it was interesting.  The cinematography suited the mood of the film really well.  It was about what good science fiction is about: the unpredicted human effects of technology.  I thought it was a good science fiction movie, better than a lot in many respects.  Why would I lie about something as simple as that?

I had to be perfect.  Not only did I have to do great talks, publish lots of papers, make lots of connections, and help her bring in grant money, but I had to have a magnetic personality, have good taste in movies and music, and be nice.

I lied for the approval of someone I respected greatly as a scientist and teacher.  I had spent years building up my CV to impress a very well-connected, well-published, well-respected woman who I thought was going to help me live out my dreams.  To have her think that I had poor taste in movies would have meant possibly having her lose faith in my scientific abilities.  I had to be perfect.  Not only did I have to do great talks, publish lots of papers, make lots of connections, and help her bring in grant money, but I had to have a magnetic personality, have good taste in movies and music, and be nice.  I very strongly thought I had to agree with her, even when I disagreed with her politics and feelings about religion.  I am skeptical of, or at least able to see subtlety in just about everything, and I often wanted to raise objections to what she was saying, but that became more difficult with her than with anyone before in my life.

Lark Sparrow, The Pond At Elephant Head, Amado, Arizona
Lark Sparrow, Chondestes grammacus, which I studied as an undergraduate

I found myself willing to compromise my personality for my advisor because she had the keys to something I had wanted since I was a child.  When I was a kid, I really loved animals, just like a lot of kids, and I learned everything I could about birds.  Birds are beautiful, they are easy to learn about since people know more about birds in the wild than we know about many other kinds of organisms.  Yes, we know a lot about E. coli, but you need a huge lab to do that, but going birding is easy.  When I was in fourth grade, and my family was going through hell, I first heard the word “ornithologist.”  What a beautiful word!  As I sat at the top of the stairs into my house, taking off my shoes, I told my mom, who was probably barely awake after her post-night-shift (or was it taking care of my drug-addicted, alcoholic brother?) day, that I was going to be an ornithologist when I grew up.

When I was in fourth grade, and my family was going through hell, I first heard the word “ornithologist.”  What a beautiful word!

This sounds no different from what any boy says when you ask him what he wants to be when he grows up.  Boys want to be firefighters, police officers, caterpillars, knights.  As they get older, they get a little more realistic and decide to be rock stars, presidents, or bull-riders.  (I can’t not tell this story: a fellow grad student of mine was babysitting for a professor in our department one night, and the girls she was babysitting put on their own production of The Nutcracker, complete with costumes and sets.  When the curtain came down, my friend said in the way any sane future-parent would say to a little girl “Do you want to be a ballerina when you grow up?”  The seven-year-old girl said “Well, I did, but my mom said I should do something more practical, so I’m going to be a geologist.”)

The difference here with me was that I actually did become an ornithologist, not long after I heard the word.  I got involved with the local birding community before leaving elementary school.  Getting into middle school I started collecting data with professors at the University of Colorado, and through high school I got more involved in the professional science world.  In my junior year of high school I started taking college courses, participating in research projects already underway, and attending scientific meetings.  I learned about every stage of the research process, including research proposals, collecting data, analyzing it with statistics, and presenting it.  By the time I got to college, I was already working at a professional level.  The only thing I needed was a Ph.D.

There was a problem called life.  Firstly my interest shifted away from birds to general problems of evolution, and I got intensely interested in mathematics.  I studied game theory, statistics, operations research, and what I especially loved, abstract math including algebra and topology.  I took history and literature courses (because I had to) and really enjoyed studying history.  I would have enjoyed the literature class if my classmates had been able to discuss things at a higher level.  I put off graduate school after college to get married and live in Boston.  I spent my spare time studying more math while I worked on trying to get a steady job, but got interested in other topics as well, including programming, European history, and fiction.  I changed, but I failed to notice this when it came to pursuing a career.   A funny thing in retrospect is that right before and right after I got the job that garnered me most of my scientific publications, I had chances at working at publishing companies.

A funny thing in retrospect is that right before and right after I got the job that garnered me most of my scientific publications, I had chances at working at publishing companies.

I knew that I loved books, but I didn’t take it seriously.  Books were always the medium of communication, never the thing themselves and I never considered “writing” to be a real career, except for a while when we first moved to Boston.  I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.  I tried to be a science writer, but I didn’t realize that’s journalism and you have to go to journalism school and get connections that way and “pay your dues” and so on.  I met people in the science writing community in Boston, and they were very nice, and helpful, but I just didn’t get what I was doing, nor did I really have any experience going for me.  I also tried contributing to an early online publication that wanted an article about bluegrass music.  There I had connections!  I successfully pitched an article, did interviews, and wrote most of it, but I buckled when I couldn’t decide on a direction for the article.  I knew the editors wanted something about the current scene in Boston, but I wanted to write about history of bluegrass music.

Despite all these changes in my life, including the birth of two children, I still believed the Ph.D. was my key to happiness.  I was willing to sacrifice a lot to do that, but there came a time when it was too much.

During my second year of graduate school the lunchtime conversations got more disturbing.  People brought up topics that were quite sensitive for me, and I got really upset pretty often.  Once, my advisor asked me if pot was the drug of choice for my fellow graduate students.  I said “No, I don’t know anybody who’s a pothead.  I really respect my colleagues and they all take research very seriously.”  She looked at me like I was insane, gave me a lecture on how drug abuse has nothing to do with morality or dedication to career, and then gave me a list of a bunch of respected scientists she knew who were potheads.  I was supposed to be convinced.  What I would have done if I hadn’t already sacrificed my integrity was tell her quite simply that drug abuse in people close to me has greatly affected my life and I thought it was really harmful.  I would have said “Drugs and alcohol have really fucked up my life and I don’t want to hear you saying it’s just something for people’s spare time.  Go to hell.”

But instead I went to my desk, and after trying to talk to a friend of mine online, I wrote about my thoughts and feelings.  This happened quite often, and wasn’t new.  Pretty often I would get in to work, start writing and while not losing track of time, I would stop caring about time, and just keep writing.  I started a couple of blogs and those often occupied my mornings.  After a while, I had to come up with a plan for when I would write so I could still get my work done.  I still kept a journal and allowed myself to write ad libitum there, but I started realizing that I was spending more time writing than doing anything else.  Part of it was research, writing papers, but a lot of it was just to deal with all the writing already going on in my head.

Things got worse in the relationship with my advisor.  There were always comments like “Oh my god, he’s a Republican.”  I’m not a Republican, or a democrat, or anything else I can put my finger on, but I think trying to alienate people for their beliefs is shitty (there’s no better word here, sorry).  For those of you who are not academic, being called “republican” is enough to get you fired.  After a few years, the lunchtime conversation had turned mostly to topics like knitting.  I have hobbies, but I don’t really talk about them the way these people did and I didn’t do any of those things.  I like my conversations either fun or intense.  A new grad student started eating lunch with us.  She was Italian-descended and from the same neighborhood of New Jersey as my advisor, and they talked about food all the time.  ALL THE TIME.  I started eating lunch at my desk.

They talked about food all the time.

One day I had an intense conversation with a postdoc who had recently joined our lab.  (For those of you who ain’t scientists, a “postdoctoral fellow” is someone who has just graduated with a Ph.D. and is doing research before getting a job as a professor.  People in evolutionary biology end up with postdocs lasting two to five years, whereas in molecular, developmental, and cellular biology they are slightly longer.  In physics, where professors don’t die and departments are small, people end up in postdocs for fifteen or twenty years, especially in theoretical physics, where there’s little research funding).  This was a conversation with personal implications for both people, and I expected it to be inflammatory.  My advisor wasn’t invited, but she joined the conversation, which ended up being two women advising me on how to live my life.  I left the table thinking my postdoc colleague was an insane, oppressive person that I didn’t want to talk to anymore.   I’m sure she didn’t see it that way, but I was ready to get back to my work.  No big deal.  Then my advisor took me into her office.

“I’m going to give you some professional advice,” she said.

“Uhh, okay…”

“Don’t try to be funny,” she said.

I heated up, I got dizzy, and my face got heavy with tears.

“Just professional advice, you know, if you want to be successful.”

What I heard her saying was “People don’t like your jokes.  You try to be funny all the time.  That’s who you are.  People don’t like it.  People don’t like you.  You are not welcome here.”

My advisor gives me professional advice on how to hide my personality.

I must have looked angry by this point, because she looked a little scared of being in the same room with me.  I informed her that she had touched a nerve, and avoided looking at her.  I was ready to quit, and I almost yelled it at her.  She told me to go meditate, and I told her I was taking a walk.  I was ready to call my dad and ask him if he would still love me without a Ph.D.  I ended up calling my Buddhist spiritual advisor and that might have been an even worse idea.

I had become a Buddhist sometime in the third year of graduate school when I started meditating at the advice of a therapist.  At first I was very scientific about it, and skeptical, and denied any religious connection.  But after a while I started to realize what a religious person I am.  I had given up on God as a teenager, mostly because I got tired of people telling me how to interpret the Bible, but I really have a taste for ceremony and honestly I have a personality much more suited for spirituality than for science.  I gave up a lot of frustration and irritation thanks to meditation.  Foolishly, I also misinterpreted several pieces of Buddhist advice and gave up things that make me happy.  I stopped carrying around a notebook for writing down my ideas.  I stopped keeping a book with me at all times (although I did often have books with me).  I stopped reading at times when I would have otherwise read.  I stopped writing.  I got really depressed.  I could go into a lot of detail about how this came about, but let me just say that when the Buddha said there was no self, he did not mean that you should give up your personality and the things that you love.

After my advisor told me not to be funny I hid my personality even more from her and everybody else.  This was harder because I was learning a lot of really interesting stuff about science, and how to teach, and I had tons of ideas rattling around in my head that weren’t going anywhere.  I closed myself off from talking to anybody about these things and I didn’t let myself write about them.  This was even harder because novels, short stories, and poems were occurring to me all the time.  I tried to dismiss these ideas, as I had done since the second year of graduate school.  For a while I just said “I’m a scientist, that’s all I can do.  Once I get my Ph.D. and have a steady job then I can write in my spare time.”  That didn’t work.  These stories were “burning a hole in my head” and I sometimes found myself outlining, writing scenes, or spontaneously jotting down poetry.  It was like trying to hold back the tide.

“How charming is divine philosophy”

I also started to see how my personality was not lining up with being a scientist at all.  I don’t think this was really a change at all, but it started becoming more obvious.  At a workshop on quantitative genetics, I got into really long arguments with people about the very nature of science and the same problems that always came up resurfaced whenever I tried to tell people about mathematics.  I uncovered some of the most reviled writings in evolutionary biology (by V.C. Wynne-Edwards) and they actually made a lot of sense to me.  I read Stephen Jay Gould’s theories and realized that there was a lot more to evolution than selection, and I read about the Zero-Force Law of evolution, which again, made sense.  I started to realize that science requires “suspension of disbelief” and my disbelief had completely come unglued.  You have to ignore a lot of common sense to get through a day as a scientist, and that was starting to grate on me.  The last straw came when I went to the annual big evolutionary biology conference in Snowbird, Utah.

Trigger warning: I liked Freddy Mercury’s mustache phase

One of my labmates at the conference told me what my advisor had meant when she told me not to be funny.  Although she might have been referring to sometimes when I offended students (this was before the whole “trigger warning” thing: “Trigger warning: this is a biology class, I’m going to say penis, vagina, sperm, kamikaze and soapberry bug.”), she was probably referring to a couple of my department-level talks.  One of them wasn’t even a joke, but I think the other, which was half-a-joke, was when I used Freddie Mercury as an example of what my research was about.  I put up a picture of Freddie from the seventies when he was thin and lanky, had nail polish and long hair, next to a picture of him from Live Aid, when he had big muscles, an armband, a wifebeater and a mustache.  My research was about how male animals change in attractiveness over their lifetimes (no joke) and I thought Freddie was a good example of this (still not a joke), but I thought people would like seeing someone from popular culture at a science talk.  I got a few laughs as I went over his features and how they had changed, but I also saw a few people getting uncomfortable, so I think this was one of the times my advisor didn’t think I was funny.  For the record, I think Freddie Mercury was a great singer, a great rock star, a hell of a masculine role model, a courageous person, and “with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality” I can say he was a good-looking guy.  I thought it would be fun to talk about him.  I guess that was too much for people.

Telling me there were serious problems later became a habit for my committee.

(Furthermore, I had shown her the slide before and she didn’t say anything about it.  Neither she, nor the rest of my committee told me about major problems with my thesis until two days before my scheduled defense, when they told me I couldn’t go forward.  These were problems they were aware of for years and they didn’t tell me until it was too late.)

The night that my friend told me about my “jokes” was the final night of the conference.  After a few hours of banqueting and having fun with people, I was alone at a table, and people started to dance.  I have danced at many conferences, but this time I thought “I can’t do that.  I will look like an idiot and I will never get a job.”  That escalated to “I’m not one of these people.  These people don’t want me around.  I’m not one of them.”  Now, I know this was a distortion.  I had many great friends in science, and just in case any of you are reading, I know that you may well have respected my work and enjoyed my company.  But there were other people, most of them placed very conveniently in positions of power, who didn’t want me to succeed, didn’t like me, and didn’t help me.  And beyond the human element, I couldn’t fight my life anymore, telling me that I should be doing something different.

The signals that my life was heading away from science got to be too much, and I was out of sync with my colleagues more and more.

So here comes life: a few months after the conference, when I was already pursuing the option of studying anthropology of science, history or philosophy of science, and fiction ideas were occupying most of my thinking time, Tyler Curtain, an English professor at UNC asked an email list if anyone had been to an evolution conference.  The big meeting would be in Raleigh in the coming year, and he was interested in going.  I emailed him and set up a time to meet, and then looked him up.  Turns out he taught a course in science fiction and fantasy.  I thought that was cool.  We met and I told him about conferences.  I remember I was writing in a notebook when he walked in.  I also remember feeling really guarded talking to him, because I didn’t want to say anything that would end my already-ending career in science.  I had already met with a philosopher of science and become convinced that I had a lot more studying to do before doing that.  I told Tyler that I had written a blog posting about it and he thanked me for writing about it.

“Uh, thanks,” I said, as if he had just thanked me for eating breakfast.  “I would do that anyway, even if nobody reads it.”  We went on to discuss how important writing was for success in science, or anywhere in the academy, and he said that he was disappointed that no one taught a science writing class.  I said I would gladly teach such a class, even though I had no more qualifications than any other scientist in the department.  It was just important to me that people learn to write properly.

“Well, of course, because you’re a writer,” he said.

I thought he was crazy.  I wasn’t a writer.  “Writer” isn’t a job, therefore someone can’t be a writer.  I was maybe a mathematician, commentator, or philosopher.  I didn’t feel like a scientist anymore, but I didn’t think calling myself a writer made any sense.  But I knew he was right, if only in the sense that writing is what I do all the time.  I am obsessed with words, the structure of language, and the clear expression of concepts.  Usually when a political issue comes up, or someone is offended on the internet, it’s actually language that I take issue with.  I have always been disappointed with how sloppy scientists are with language.  If I heard another scientist say “write a grant” I thought I would quit.

“Writer” isn’t a job, therefore someone can’t be a writer.

So I did.

Scientists are sloppy with language because science is not about language, it is merely clothed in language.  People will act sometimes like science needs to follow the letter of words, like the law, but I think that’s a prop for pushing particular arguments.  Science is about measuring stuff.  Science is about being in the lab, collecting tons of data.  Science is not about concepts.  Scientists take concepts for granted.  They have to, or else they won’t get their work done.  Science is an intensely extraverted activity, despite the idealistic images of scientists we get from science fiction and other literature (including the journalism of science).

Furthermore, science is an intensely social activity.  Successful science, from what I’ve seen, is Big Science, with huge, sometimes international, collaboration.  Go to a scientific journal and see how many papers there are with one author.  Those people are hiding collaborators.  If there is a person who gets credit for a singular contribution, there were tens, perhaps hundreds of people who worked for that person that you never hear of.  This is why I laugh about the common narrative of the Franklin-Crick-Wilkins-Watson affair because that’s how science almost always works: one or two labs do a ton of work on something, then along comes another lab in the same subdiscipline and gets a little edge on things and gets all the credit (no one mentions Linus Pauling in that story).  Or one of the grad students favored by an advisor does something to make that advisor look good and gets a lot of the credit for work done by other people.  A lot of it is political, for lack of a better word.

So I had to hang it up.  I hope you enjoy reading my fiction, some of which is about science.  I had a lot of fun doing science.  I remember whole weeks I spent programming, listening to Music in Twelve Parts, really trying things out, and getting stuff to work.  That was fun.  So was creating beautiful research papers, diagrams and posters.  I speaking about science.  But again, that was about beauty, and science is not about beauty.  If you’re a young person reading this, I am not trying to discourage you from science.  Wait, yes I am.  If beauty is what’s important to you, that is something very valuable.  I keep hearing politicians say “we need more scientists.”  Well, no we don’t.  We need scientists, but we don’t need a surplus of scientists.  We also need poets, novelists, painters, and other people who show the world beauty.  If you like the idea of science as something beautiful then science fiction is for you, science reality is not.


4 thoughts on “Liberate tutame ex infernis

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