I’ve never had a very strong sense of what I should do with my life.
Clearly, this is a problem.
When I was an undergraduate (five LOOOONG years ago—a lifetime ago, it seems), I felt like I was surrounded by students who knew exactly what they wanted to do with their life: medicine. You see, premedical studies are big at my college, and if you are studying biology or biochemistry like I was, you’ll find yourself swimming in a sea of future doctors. They are motivated, ambitious, and competitive. They are ready for med school, and nothing will stand in their way. But what mystified me about them was this: How did they know? How did they know at the tender age of eighteen or nineteen what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives?
I don’t even know what I want to have for dinner tomorrow night, let alone what I want to do for the next forty years.
Like most people, I’ve always loved food. Like many people, I had bad skin (or what I thought was bad skin) as a teenager. I was a little pimply, sometimes a lot pimply, and I didn’t like it. I wanted smooth, clear, beautiful skin, the kind you see in a magazine ad for foundation. I didn’t want to wear pounds of makeup to give the illusion of perfect skin; I wanted my own skin to be picture-perfect. With the best of intentions, my mother suggested to me that to help my skin, perhaps I should eat more fruits and vegetables. After I got over my initial shock at her criticism (rare as it was from her), I realized she was right. And slowly, ever so slowly, I began weaning myself off of sugary soda and candy, eating more carrots and fewer cookies.
Whether it was simply a shift in hormones, the new face lotion prescribed by the dermatologist, or the healthier diet, my skin cleared up. Beautifully. I was elated! And I was so happy with the change that I started to think maybe I wanted to study nutrition seriously. Maybe I could be a nutritionist. Maybe I could help other people eat better!
(I should add here that I also considered dermatology, but I can’t stand the sight of blood, so it was never really an option for me.)
But I wasn’t sure about nutrition. And then I found myself swept off my scholarly feet by an enthusiatic philosophy professor with a passion for neuroscience, and POOF! Fast forward several years and I’m so deep into a Ph.D. in neuroscience that the only logical answer is to finish it.
Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t decide to go to grad school on a whim. I started my Ph.D. thinking I would teach. I love learning and teaching, and I love interacting with people. I’m not the stereotypical scientist who prefers to work alone, cloistered away in the lab, trying to cure cancer. On occasion I am that scientist, such as on quiet Sunday evenings when no one else is around. Most of the time, I prefer the social aspect of science. But now, as I approach the crossroads that is graduation, I am realizing that I must leave the lab. It is unlikely that I will thrive if I continue my career as a researcher—I will be lucky if I can finish grad school.
But I’m haunted by that dream of helping other people eat better.
Food is so fundamental. I really believe it is key to our health and happiness. It is the sun around which my earthly thoughts revolve. Food absorbs me, happily, willingly. A career where I spend my time talking to people about food and how to eat for health and pleasure? That sounds downright dreamy.
And so I cling to hope. Hope that I will finish my degree here at Northwestern University. Hope that my career path lies ahead of me, waiting for me to discover it. Hope that I will contribute to the greater good, something bigger and more enduring than my life. And hope that there will be delicious, nourishing food to eat along the way. Woman cannot achieve dreams on water alone. (Chocolate milk, maybe.)