I know. I’m late on this meme, but I do have some very compelling reasons. A couple months ago, when #Iamscience was the talk of the science-verse on Twitter, I was up to my neck in school work, meteorite research, and a moribund relationship. Instead, I squeaked out a tweet about my math difficulties, gave it the #Iamscience hashtag and went back to treading water for the remainder of the Winter term. Now that the Spring term has started and I’ve somewhat recovered from the death of a five-year relationship, I feel like I’m in a much better position to talk about how I got involved in science and grew to love meteorites.
I wasn’t a science and math genius as a kid. What I had were parents who recognized my interest in astronomy and bought me a cheap little Tasco telescope from Wal-Mart. I don’t remember if it was for my birthday or for Christmas. All I remember was the excitement of breaking out that 2.4 inch refractor from the box and setting it up without looking at the directions. I’m not prone to hyperbole, but let me say what a glorious gift that was! I remember cruising the Pleiades and Orion’s Nebula during the cold Missouri winters. Summer vacation was spent traipsing through the Summer Triangle in the Milk Way. Jupiter and its dancing moons became a nightly game of guess-which-moon-is-which as they conspired in their galactic version of musical chairs. And then there was Saturn. If ever there was a “holy shit” moment in my young life, it came from stumbling across the queen of the Solar System.
I was hooked. For about two years (which seems like eternity for a 12-14 year old) I devoured everything astronomy related. On a 7th grade field trip to the Pittsburg State University planetarium, I was that annoying kid who kept asking questions about focal ratios and mirror diameters. It was, in a way, a very empowering F-you moment in an otherwise hellish junior high experience.
In spite of all my enthusiasm for the stars, I still couldn’t get past my math fears. My sixth grade math teacher had ridiculed me in front of my class for not being able to do simple arithmetic on the board. My parents found out about this episode and verbally flogged in her in the principal’s office, but it still wasn’t enough to undo the damage. I went through junior high and high school with a palpitation-inducing mathphobia that pretty much destroyed my math confidence and the desire to do anything with it. Those hesitations prevented me from pursuing astronomy and science in general throughout my high school career.
After graduating high school, I entered a transient point in my life. I’m going to spare you the details of my early and mid-20’s. Suffice it to say, I moved to Hawaii and studied Intercultural Communications (whatever the hell that was) and then ended up in Portland, Oregon as a culinary arts student. Told ya it was a transient period. I then spent a couple more years cooking before I realized that I really wanted to be a scientist. Mathphobia be damned.
At the age of 26, after two career expectation changes, I decided to enroll in Portland State’s geology program. I was attracted to the program because of the space and planetary science minor. Nearly two and a half years later, I’m about halfway through the program. I’ve also been working in the meteorite lab geeking out over thin sections and even doing original research.
It has not been easy. I wasn’t a math or science prodigy as a kid and I sure as hell ain’t one now. I’ve retaken Calculus 1 twice and I’ll be doing the same thing for Calculus 2 and linear algebra. It’s a safe bet that I’ll be doing the same for Calculus 4. At times it’s frustrating and I just wanna give up and slink back to whatever kitchen will let me peel potatoes or cut onions. You wanna watch me sweat and start contemplating the end of my academic career? Give me some partial fractions to work on. Or some obnoxiously large matrix that needs to be reduced to row-echelon form.
There are days that I wonder if I’m cut out for the life of an academic. I look at some of my fellow undergrads who seem to understand the math and it’s kind of an isolating feeling. I watch them get their B’s and the occasional A’s and get that much closer to graduating or entering grad school. Meanwhile, I’m mired in calculus wondering when things will click or, worst yet, will it ever click. There are definitely occasions where I wonder if I’m not wasting my time and that of my professors.
When I get to that point, I try to remember why I went back to school. It wasn’t because it was easy, but because it was a challenge. And it will always be such. There are those “a-ha” moments that serve as a fleeting reminder that knowledge and understanding only come with perseverance and just a stupid amount of stubborn determination.
And then there’s the meteorite lab itself. Working in the lab and having projects has given me a tangible motivation to not give up. It’s a consistent reminder of what I’m fighting to accomplish with my life. It’s there that I see the usefulness of the integral and everything else that has eluded my understanding. As clichéd as it sounds, working in the lab has kept me in school. It’s kept me from saying screw it and studying… oh I don’t know… something squishy like sociology. (Of course, I’m joking. I don’t actually believe sociology is squishy. Not completely anyways).
So, what was the point of all this? Why did I make you sit through a short history of my childhood and late 20’s? To show the unconventionality of my path to science. I still haven’t collected enough cereal box tops for my scientist badge, but I’m getting there. Slowly. And I’ll get there because I’m a stubborn bastard.