Monday, April 27, 2009

I Heart Science

On Thursday afternoon, I sent a pair of haiku to Matt. I love haiku.

Thesis committee
Liked my stuff and they want to

Let me write thesis

But still! So many
Flies to push and text to write
I am exhausted

And that pretty much sums up the results of my thesis committee meeting. Mission accomplished.

My committee is wonderful. Each time we’ve met, they have given me their full attention and treated our meeting as an opportunity to teach me new things. I love to learn. It is a little overwhelming to have four professors focused with laser-like precision on you—I was nervous before and during the meeting—but they have been generous and supportive of me, and that has made my journey through graduate school that much sweeter.

I am very happy to see the finish line for my degree. It’s been a long road, full of twists and turns, dotted with some success and much failure. The journey has made me laugh and it’s made me cry. It’s also made me very, very crazy. Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid to do this work—I get paid to stumble my way through experiments and to write manuscripts. I get paid to think really, really hard. And even though science is my day job, it’s changed the way I think about everything. It’s no longer possible for me to accept anything as truth—as one blogger puts it, “Nothing is sacred.” The first of two very important things that science has taught me is this: prepare to fail. What the hell does that mean? “Prepare to fail?” It means that we should expect things to go wrong. Because they do, all the time. In fact, the morning of my committee meeting, my hair dryer caught on fire. Swear to God! I was blow-drying my hair, and the dryer sputtered. I pulled it back from my hair to look, and smoke and sparks starting shooting out the bottom. Ahhhh! I frantically clicked it off, yanked the plug out of the wall, and threw it away. Then I thought, Great. Now I’m going to have bad hair on this very important day. Then I fluffed my still-damp hair, thought, oh well, and finished getting ready. I just hoped it wasn’t an inauspicious sign of bad things to come.

The second thing that science has taught me is this: have a back-up plan. My back-up plan after my hair-dryer caught fire was to let my wild hair do its own thing. I got a haircut recently, and I told Matt I look like I have a permanent case of bedhead. I thought that description might appeal to him more than my first description, which was that I look like a shaggy dog right now. Too bad Matt’s a cat person!

From a more worldly perspective, this back-up plan idea is great because it keeps your mind open to other possibilities that you aren’t pursuing right now. I still dream of being a professional writer, but for now, it’s my backup plan. I’m going to take this science thing as far as I can, and I’ll see where I end up. Maybe some day I’ll be teaching your children that they, too, should prepare to fail. I’m sure that lesson will make me a very popular professor.

Many of you, dear readers, sent me good-luck wishes and other kind thoughts last week. For that, I cannot thank you enough. Some of you have known me for a long, long time. I can still remember having college breakfasts with JD, and during breakfast, he’d poke fun at my nerdy science schedule. After breakfast, I’d head off to Intro to Neuroscience as he’d mosey on over to his political science class. But here’s the truth: JD is just as big a nerd as I am. He’s always reading something interesting, adding new pieces to his mental jigsaw puzzle, making sense out of a nonsensical world. Because JD’s nerdiness differs from my nerdiness, our friendship has a certain color and richness that makes it very special to me. I’m so glad he’s NOT a scientist!

Others I’ve known for…uh, a week? Does it count as meeting if this person exists in your life as words on a computer screen? But oh my, what powerful words! I am so excited to have discovered Gena and her beautiful blog, Choosing Raw. I happened upon Gena through her poignant essay on her quitiversary, one year after she quit smoking. Reading her words, I thought to myself, This is a woman who gets it. This is someone who understands that we battle our demons in a series of tiny moments, a sequence of seemingly minor decisions that add up to something so much bigger than us. Gena fought her battle with cigarettes; I fight my battle with a wandering mind and a fidgety body. It seems so strange to say it this way, but the key to success may be letting yourself be uncomfortable for a while. Let yourself be cranky because it’s nighttime, and you used to smoke a cigarette after the dinner dishes were washed. Let yourself be grumpy because you’ve got data to analyze, and moving numbers around Excel spreadsheets is mind numbing. But do what you have to do to get the job done: for Gena, push-ups and reminding herself that she wants to be healthy; for me, an hour break for every hour of work. Repeat as needed.

As much as I try to focus on the process, in cooking and in the rest of my life, it occurs to me that some things are easier to accomplish if we set the process aside for a minute and focus on the goal. Nobody enjoys quitting the smokes. Likewise, it’s fair to say I have not enjoyed graduate school. But I think both are worthy endeavors, and for the latter, I can say that 90% of the time, I am glad I decided to pursue a PhD. At the end of the day, when all the experiments are done, the data crunched, the figures made, the manuscript written, the thesis submitted, the PhD earned, there’s one thing that will always be true: science starts and ends with ideas. We’ll never know “the truth.” All we ever get to see is a kaleidoscope of evidence in which the picture flows endlessly. Certainty slips through our fingers like grains of sand. But never you mind: there is always another experiment to be done.


Laurie said...

Oh Rose-Anne,that's brilliant. Congratulations! I've been thinking about you and your committee meeting often since I read your last post. Sorry I didn't comment on that one. I wanted to send my best wishes, but every time I read about Ned I cried and couldn't find the right words. You are a powerful writer, and obviously an outstanding scientist. You are sure to be a very popular professor, if that's where your path takes you. Of course, there's always this crazy writing thing that we do...

Rosiecat said...

Thank you, Laurie! I know what you mean about not being able to find the right words sometimes--it happens to me too.

I'm convinced that this crazy writing thing we do helps to keep me sane, so I'm going to keep doing it! I hope you keep writing too :-) I'll be over here reading along.

ttfn300 said...

CONGRATS!! very exciting :) And another great post, it's funny how i'm not surprised anymore when an experiment fails...

Rosiecat said...

Haha! ttfn, your comment made me laugh out loud. Nobody understands a scientist's reaction to failure quite like another scientist. I'm only surprised when things actually WORK! It's crazy, this science life.

Anonymous said...

YAAAAAYYYY!!!! Congrats to you, Rose-Anne!! I'm so proud of you. :)


P.S. I haven't forgotten about coming to see you. I'm waiting on my new syllabi to pick a good weekend.

JD said...

Thanks for the shout out RA! You are correct that it is good and right to have friends who do different things. Tends to give life some added perspective. You are correct, I AM a nerd, just in a OMG I cannot believe the Senate just voted down the SCHIP legislation kind of way.

Rosiecat said...

Aw, you're the best little sister ever, Theresa! If you're coming to see me soon, I'd better get those ramekins ordered so we can make ourselves some flan! :-)

Indeed, you ARE a nerd, JD! You're a politics nerd, certainly, and probably a history nerd as well. But do you out-nerd the Wife when it comes to history? I'll leave that one to the scholars to sort out!

JD said...

Never, that woman reads the craziest historical fiction ever. Remember, she is the one who diverted our entrie vacation to check out the Laura Inglalls Wilder Museum.

Shawn said...

so i've only read the haikus thusfar but go you!

Rosiecat said...

JD, after that museum visit, it's hard to imagine what you might do in the future to make the Wife happy! You two are the cutest lovenerds ever. (Get it...lovenerds? Lovebirds? Har har!)

Thank you, Shawn! And might I add that I *think* your attention span might be even be shorter than mine? ;-) Haiku is poetry for the attention-challenged.

Gena said...

Oh, sweet Rosie! PLEASE forgive me for having seen this post too late! I was greviously behind on reading blogs this week, and I missed it. I HAVE been thinking of you and the committee meeting, and I am so thrilled to hear that the committee has been fair, supportive, etc.

It seems to me that you are going to bring passion and commitment to your work (and your life) regardless of what surprises may come your way. So don't let a blazing hair dryer freak you out too much.

And finally, yes, you can achieve whatever goals you wish to. One thing that quitting taught me is that the power of will is boundless: we humans may be, well, human, but we can achieve nearly anything if we are determined. So often it's simply a matter of engaging with a task in a wholly committed way. I know that you're pursuing your future with this attitude, and that you'll succeed.


Rosiecat said...

Oh, Gena, your comment made me smile! You're a busy lady. The last thing I'd want is to make anyone feel bad about not reading my blog or leaving me a comment. Life is too short to spend it all sitting at the computer :-)

I'll take inspiration and courage wherever I can find it, and heaven knows I love a good story. There is nothing more inspiring than a story in which someone finds the strength to do what they thought was impossible. Sometimes I feel that living life on my terms is one of those tasks, but then I look around and I see all these examples of people who are building their own lives, one tiny step at a time, and I feel inspired all over again. Gena, I think you are one of those people. Keep on writing, and I'll keep on reading!

Gena said...

Thanks, Rosie! We will write and read and follow each other's thoughts! xo