One of the most phenomenal movements going around the Twitter world right now is the hashtag ‘#IAmScience,” started by Kevin Zelnio as an attempt to get scientists to share their funny, emotional, and generally nontraditional paths towards becoming scientists and inspire the legions of burgeoning scientists out there who may feel discouraged by what they see as insurmountable obstacles.

As I still haven’t quite had a chance to write about my Science Online 2012 experience (a post that I have admittedly been procrastinating for the past 2 weeks), I realized that participating in the #IAmScience movement might actually be a perfect chance to discuss what exactly it was that I got out of Science Online.

You see, I was a smart kid.

Before you roll your eyes and think I’m being obnoxious, I’ll explain myself a little further. The problem is, when you’re a smart kid, everyone seems to want to know exactly what kind of ‘smart’ you are. Are you the “math/science” sort of smart kid? Or are you the “arts/language/writing” sort of smart kid?

Because, as I soon discovered, no one really expects you to be both.

As a child, I spent hours upon hours (upon hours) playing with my K’Nex and Erector sets. The microscope that I got for my birthday one year, with hundreds of little organisms on tiny glass slides, didn’t leave my grasp for a solid few months. I had a more-than-slight obsession with rocks, for some reason; whenever we went to the Museum of Natural History in NYC (which was quite often, due to the aforementioned obsession), I would dash towards the rocks section, plopping myself down in front of the glass pane and just staring at the amethyst and rose quartz. When I decided to start my very own rock collection at home, my mother grimaced whenever we passed a rock-filled driveway, as she knew that the next several hours would be lost to me kneeling down and sifting through every pebble in search of an errant piece of Fool’s Gold.

But at the same time, the very next day I would run out to the trees behind my house and write poetry. I wrote lengthy stories that were pretty precocious for a middle-schooler, and spent hours in Barnes & Noble going up to the section that held the “TA-” authors and pointing out where my novels would reside one day. I played the violin since the age of 3, and spent every Saturday slaving away in music school. I first entered a darkroom when I was 9 years old, and was developing film & printing my own photographs by the time I was 10.

So where did this leave me?

In my head, I was Melanie. In my parents’ heads, I was their enthusiastic, multidimensional child.

The trouble came when other people had questions.

They found out that I was attending a gifted middle school. “Oh, so what sort of gifted is she? Like, the writing kind, or is she more into math and science?”

They found out that I was in the Mathletes. “Oh wow, she must be a math brain!”

They found out that I wrote a poem that got into the school newsletter. “Oh wow, she must be a writer!”

It was always like that. A math brain, a writer. As if everyone only gets one identity and they have to stick with it until death. Don’t get me wrong – none of these comments are actually hurtful. None of them are rude, and none of them are mean. And when my mother responded back, saying “Oh, she’s TOTALLY a math/science girl! She’s in all of the advanced classes!” or “Oh, she’s TOTALLY an arts/writing girl! You should see the stories she writes, and her photographs!” I never took it as anything but pride.

As I grew up, however, this mentality started to cause a problem. What was I, exactly? Was I a math/science girl? Or was I an arts/writing girl? And why, exactly, could I not be both? After all, being both didn’t seem to cause a problem when I was 8. Why can’t writers love microscopes and rock collections? Why can’t scientists love poetry and watercolor paintings?

I’ve found ways to make my dual identities work for me. During my sophomore year of college, I juggled psychology courses and a research assistantship with large format photography classes and a position on the editorial board of a student literary publication. When I decided to go to graduate school, I picked psychology, one of the sciences that is possibly the most connected to the “humanities” due to its status as a social science. My two favorite necklaces are of a caffeine molecule and a typewriter. When I wear the former, people ask, “Oh, are you a scientist?” The latter, and I get, “Are you a writer?” No matter which one of those questions are asked, I always say yes. And when Dan Simons offered a class last year on writing for a general audience, I jumped on the roster, eager to learn more about how to combine my love of not-quite-so-academic writing with my love for scientific research.

Which brings me to my experience at Science Online 2012.

I’ve been blogging about science (specifically psychology) for the past year, so I was no stranger to this community. It’s not as if I didn’t know this world existed. Yet after I returned to Champaign from my Science Online experience, as I was trying to explain what exactly I loved about the conference, there was one thing in particular that I realized was the reason why I left feeling so inspired:

I was surrounded by an entire community of people who had just as many competing identities as I did.

For the first time in a very long time, I was fully surrounded by 450 other people who also refused to accept that loving science meant not loving writing and not loving art. I met 450 other people who were likely also very confusing to their classmates, teachers, and relatives growing up, when they didn’t comfortably fit into the stereotype of being a “science brain” or a “writing brain.” I met 450 other people who didn’t feel the need to defend the fact that they dared to have more than one facet to their personalities and interests. And I met 450 other people who had more facets than I dreamed of – 450 people who were better at science than I am, better at writing than I am, better at art and photography than I am. Yet instead of feeling overwhelmed, I felt…inspired. And, to be quite honest, I felt hopeful.

I am Art. I am Music. I am Photography. I am Writing.

And I am Science.

14 responses to “#IAmScienceOnline2012

  1. I can so identify with this. And Melanie, it sounds like we had identical childhoods. Thanks for this beautiful post and helping me think more about why I love this community so much.

  2. Fantastic. And not to just totally harp on gender stereotypes, but you’re also a woman, which makes your multi-dimensionality, tenacity, and perseverance into one a$$-kicking, smart, sexy package—and I say that to you as another woman, as props, as thanks. Here’s to more people like you being able to see the beauty in the entire world that surrounds us.

  3. What a lovely post. Thank you. I am at a point of mid-life career change and find so many things interesting that I feel pulled in 100 different directions. I think I will be happiest as a permanent, full time student. But this is an awfully expensive career choice.

  4. Melanie! First of all, I like your blog and enjoy seeing your grad school updates on facebook. I know it’s been years since we’ve had any “real” contact, but you just described my life, so please excuse the long comment. We have LISG in common, of course. 😉 And I grew up being viewed as a math/science kid because those subjects came *slightly* easier to me (which just meant I had to study more to get As in history than I did to get As in physics). So I pursued math research during my high school summers and decided I should be a biomedical engineer. But I was also a dancer. And a writer. And a singer. And an artist. In fact, my common app essay was about the dichotomy between dancer Dawn and scientist Dawn.

    When I got to Harvard, I started a concentration in engineering. Meanwhile, I continued to dance, sing, write/design for various publications, and build websites for organizations I was involved in. But all of that was for fun; I didn’t think I would pursue it long-term. I had a nagging desire to study religion because that was also a huge part of who I was, but that didn’t sound as practical as engineering. By sophomore year, however, it was clear that I was unhappy. I was putting myself in a box and limiting myself academically…for whom? It certainly wasn’t for myself because math and science were never the only subjects I loved. I was trying to fulfill someone else’s expectations and decided right then that I didn’t care to anymore.

    So long story short, I switched to studying religion (with a secondary field in psychology, so there’s still some science left in me. 🙂 I was interested at first in the tension between science and religion today, so I designed a junior tutorial around that. And I started doing more of the things I thought were not practical: from co-directing a dance company and joining a competing dance crew in Boston to randomly taking up Korean and spending a summer teaching English in Seoul. Now I’m applying to seminary, which is honestly the last thing I ever expected. But my expectations have changed drastically. I now expect to only do more writing and dancing in the future, more of what I love, regardless of whether it fits into some box society designed. And I’m confident that everything I’ve learned wil prove useful. My interests, my resume, and my identity are all over the map now, so I barely know how to describe myself anymore. So rather than pinpoint all of the many things I am, I’m now content with saying simply that I am Dawn. 🙂

    Your post encouraged me, so I hope this encourages you, too. Much love!

  5. Thank you for such an honest and inspiring article (and Dawn above for her comment). You said it perfectly with: “Why can’t writers love microscopes and rock collections? Why can’t scientists love poetry and watercolor paintings?”

    Much like yourself, I’ve felt this similar identity clash for most of my life. I am interested in just about everything in life, which can be both a blessing and a curse. I would love to pursue a career in science just as much as I would like to write and record an album or study theology, for example. However, under my identity as a student of science, these things seem to startle even those closest to me. But to me, an interest in science simply suggests an interest in the wider world, not only molecules and pipettes.

    I’ve now reached a stage where I really need to consider what my next step is though, but your words have inspired me in some way to be true to my interests. Thanks.

    (Also, Science Online sounds like it was a great experience!)

    • Yes, it was a great experience!

      I’m so glad that you took something from my story/post. I really hope you do pursue all of your interests! As a grad student in psychology who also pursues my interest in writing through blogging, I can assure you that there really is room for lots of things in life. I know many grad students who have interests in all sorts of things like horseback riding, running marathons, reading romance novels, playing guitar, playing hockey — you name it. Don’t let stereotypes hold you back! If everyone with multiple interests avoids going into the sciences because of stereotypes, then the field will be full of boring people with no creativity — what a sad day for science that would be.

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  6. this reminds me of something they keep saying in the Steve Jobs bio: that the world belongs to those who stand at the intersection of technology and humanities. it’s a special combination.

  7. Thank you, for sharing this! I was happy to meet so many women at Scio12 with such diverse interests and talents. At times in my life I have felt defensive about my non-sciencey interests – felt the need to justify the investment of time and energy. We are so much more than our aptitudes.

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