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.