This post is inspired by Kevin Zelnio, who shared his journey to science as part of an ongoing conversation after Science Online 2012 , and encouraged others to do the same (thank you, Kevin). To get the big picture, follow the #IAmScience hashtag on Twitter.
I am a high school biology teacher. This is what I tell people when they ask me what I do. It’s a reasonable answer. I go into my classroom every day and talk about biology. I draw cells and spindles and Punnett squares and trophic pyramids. I diagram squid and lancets and tiny choanocytes. I supervise activities that the publishers insist on calling experiments. I bring in blog posts and articles for my students to read and (with luck) argue over. Armed with play-doh and pop-beads, I tackle meiotic divisions and ribosomal subunits. I grade labs. I grade homework. I grade tests. I grade make-up tests. Darwin is my homeboy, and Mendel is my patron saint. On the surface, it’s all biology.
But, this isn’t where I was meant to end up. By the Year 2010, I was supposed to be a world renown marine biologist and film-maker, possibly married to Jean-Michel Cousteau, and definitely living 24/7 on a boat. I was supposed to be a champion of wildlife and a household name. I had resources. I had aptitude. And, I had a plan.
My love of science began with dental school. Not mine, of course. My parents were both doing postdoc specializations at a competitive university in the States. My early childhood memories of them involve lots of articles, slide carrels, and huge books with bible-thin pages covered in tiny print. My sister and I learned to read early, so they threw every science book they could afford in front of us to keep us entertained. Safari Cards were the absolute best. We had a pretty big set – maybe 2,000 cards. We pored over every one, reading and rereading until the corners were peeling and curling. My favorite was the Great White Shark, so I decided (at the age of 6) to become a marine biologist. I had no real idea what marine biologists did, but I imagined that if animals and seawater were involved, it was all to the good. For the next 10 years, every trip to an aquarium, every dolphin show, and every seashell collecting expedition reinforced my conviction that I was meant to be a steward of the ocean and all its teeming life. Yes. Steward of the Ocean. I imagined it on my business cards. My childhood was filled with museum trips and planetarium shows. A trip to Egypt coupled with my introduction to Indiana Jones briefly derailed my plans with fantasies of archeology, but a timely move to Miami during middle school got me back on track. The ocean was my back yard.
I was lucky enough to be admitted to the MAST Academy in 1991 for high school. An old, converted aquarium attraction, this magnet school for “maritime science and technology” housed marine themed majors. For a kid who loved school, but hated homework, it was a pretty good gig. Flush with money, and staffed with young, enthusiastic teachers, I got to take three sciences in one year (seven, total, before graduation), read Moby Dick with the saltiest dog of an English teacher you could want, take part in the nation’s only Coast Guard JROTC, and go canoeing during physical education on Biscayne Bay. My chemistry teacher had the dubious distinction of having once been fired by Jacques Cousteau. My physics teacher let us fire ball bearings down the hallway. My JROTC instructor was a naval engineer. We built a boat in Woodshop. Even in the grips of the egocentrism of adolescence, I understood how blessed I was to be in a place where learning was the method and the goal. Of course, that was before NCLB.
The summer after my sophomore year, I landed a paid internship at RSMAS working in a planktonology lab. On the first day, I was introduced to my microscope at the lab bench. There I would sit for eight hours each day, sorting plankton tow sample jars, looking for fish larvae and copepods. It was mind-numbing, dull work, but the grad students made up for it. They seemed eccentric and cool; utterly unconcerned with fashion or regular sleeping hours. My teenage self felt included in a secret world of academia with the absolute hippest kids on the planet. I spent seven grueling weeks in front of that microscope, and three glorious days out on a research boat before Hurricane Andrew hit and turned Miami inside-out. I graduated high school with a “major” in Oceanic and Atmospheric Science. Everything was going according to plan.
And then, I went to college.
For the first time in my academic life, I had to work really, really hard. I spent the first month of college wondering if there was some kind of introductory course I had missed. The one where they pass out the secret decoder rings and the College-to-English dictionaries. I found myself suddenly in the midst of women who were not only passionate, like I was, but also terrifyingly smart. And disciplined. And diligent. The pace of my whole world had suddenly sped up, and I was spending all my energy just trying to catch my breath. I flailed my way through organic chemistry, suffering serious doubts about my future in marine biology (or any biology). Zoology, micro, ecology, evolution. The concepts were still fascinating, but the pace was grueling. I never blamed my professors. I was convinced (and still, mostly, am) that the problem was me. I was drowning in the sheer volume of information I was expected to assimilate, and I simply lacked the tools to do it. Every semester was a nail-biting saga of stress and frantic studying. Going into my senior year, I was adrift, academically. I had all but finished my coursework for my degree, but had lost my way in the daily grind to survive my major. Though my college experience helped me grow, socially and personally, in ways I never could have anticipated, my childhood science dreams seemed flat, dull things. I was numb and so very, very tired.
Three things happened my senior year that saved me from myself.
I took most of my credits that year in the Studio Art department. On the verge of really screwing up at school, I had decided that if I was going to disappoint my science-minded parents, then I was really going to go all the way. I took painting, bookmaking, calligraphy, drawing, woodcutting, and signed up for a senior art project. I found something in these classes that I had been missing since I left Miami – room to breathe. I was still getting it wrong. Still flailing. But my art professors held my failures up as a mirror for me to examine. Work took on meaning again. The process became important again. A failure was not just a wrong answer, but something that had value. I knew it was doing nothing to further my science career, but it felt good to live in my own head for a while. I had missed, perhaps mourned, the process of discovery.
The one science class I did take that year was Coral Reef Physiology with Paulette Peckol, a marine biologist specializing in coral reef ecology and conservation. I chose it because it was the only senior seminar that would fit my schedule, but it was the last thing I was required to do for my major. I was dreading it. The class was small – maybe fifteen women. It met in a tiny, dusty lab with a western exposure. The afternoon sun behind beige shades gave it a sleepy, mellow feel – like an old parlour. Professor Peckol handed us a list of journal articles the first day and told us, not unkindly, to get to reading. After we were done with all the reading, she made us get to talking. We each chose topics within the scope of the course and prepared a lecture for the class. Dredging through journal articles, trying to decipher the language of the research, I learned more than I ever had in all my frantic note-taking in the three previous years. My classmates were alternately nervous, funny, polished, panicked, and engaging. But, every one of them taught me something. I talked about sea-stars.
Later that fall, my boss in the IT department called in sick to the office to ask someone (ANYONE) to cover the workshop she was due to teach that day. It was a workshop for the faculty who wanted to set up their own web pages for their courses. I was bored playing desk jockey, so I volunteered. I walked in to the computer lab not having any idea what I was going to say, but not terribly concerned. I knew what they needed to know, and all I had to do was tell them, right? The first thing I saw when I got there was a very well-educated man trying to turn on his computer by speaking into the mouse. I knew, instantly, that whatever I had thought I was going to do wasn’t going to work. I wish that I had a more clear memory of what I said that day. I remember that I smiled a lot. I also paced the room, winding my way around the rows as I talked. I answered the same ten questions a thousand times. And, when the hour was up, the class – my class – got up and left. One of the professors stopped on her way out and asked me, when would I be teaching again?
And, just like that, I became a teacher. It suddenly became clear to me that my place wasn’t in the lab. My place was in school. I had gone most of my life believing that I was meant to follow the examples of great scientific researchers. All along, what had inspired me were science teachers. Be they books or museum displays or people, it was the discovery that made me love science. Throughout my childhood, my teachers didn’t tell me. They showed me. And, I had discovered that I knew how to show people, too. I volunteered to teach every workshop I could fit into my schedule. That summer, I got a job teaching remedial science at a high school in a small town. Seventeen students in eight subjects in one classroom and no textbooks. The next summer, they asked me to come back again. I put out my resume with the help of a head hunter for private schools which led, eventually, to an interview. The school took a chance on me – a 22 year old with a biology degree and no formal teacher training. Once again, I had a good teacher. An experienced, phenomenally intelligent woman took me under her wing and gave me nothing short of an apprenticeship in my first two years.
So, here’s what I really do: I am a specialist of 9th grade cognition. I take concrete operational minds and guide them to their abstract operational fruition. I scaffold the baffling unknown with the old familiar. Blank stares become skeptical squints become upraised eyebrows of wonder. Or not. I can’t reach them all. But, I get most of them. Every year is the same, but every day is different. I have come to understand more science in the teaching of it than in all my formal coursework. And, in teaching, I have reclaimed the joy of discovery through my students.
Science is the elegant truth in the messy stramash of history. Folklore and bias are all reflected in the science of each culture. How science is applied tells us about our mores and priorities. Every year, in groups of twenty, my students pick apart the fabric of their living world and discover that they are critical cogs in a wonderful ecological machine. Over and over, I get to see my students marvel at the tiny workings of their cells and be horrified by the biological bombs that are exotic species. I accept their dissonance and skepticism, and I repay them with evidence and data. I give them the real meanings of words like theory and proven. After thirteen years of experience, I can anticipate them. I see their questions writ across their expressions, and I draw them out in lines of logic and sense.
Joyfully, I am a high school biology teacher. I Am Science.