I saw a rainbow the other day on my way home from work. A real rainbow. I had to pause and admire it. It was directly south of me as I stood on Chicago Avenue, outside the Jewel-Osco. This rainbow was fat and glorious, and it reached straight up into the clouds, a ribbon of color just hanging from the sky. I was surprised to see it, but I’m always surprised to see rainbows. I see images of rainbows all the time—I do live in Chicago, after all, home of several famously gay neighborhoods, some of which are decorated festively with rainbows—but it’s rare that I see a real rainbow. The real ones are much more magical, shimmering elusively in the air. They lie just out of reach; we can never touch them or find that pot of gold at the bottom. Rainbows exist for beauty and imagination and to remind us that illusion can be a pleasure and, likewise, pleasure can be an illusion.
The fact that this rainbow stood directly south of me felt apropos. Just days earlier I delivered an answer to the biggest question I have ever faced: this fall, I will be moving to Texas to start a postdoctoral position at Texas A & M University. From where I sit right now, Texas is very, very far south.
Why Texas? The short answer is chance. I have spent many hours this year thinking about what to do next with my life. I thought long and hard about science: do I still want to do science? If not, then what? But if yes, then what? I cycled through all sorts of career possibilities. With some of them, I tried on that career for a spell. For a while, I was going to teach high school science. I had lunch with a chemistry teacher whose science fair I had judged in December. We talked about all sorts of things, including teaching, and at the end of our lunch her advice surprised me. “It sounds like you do want to teach at the college level,” she said. “You can always teach high school, but this is like your one shot to be a professor. You should go for it.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this advice or something similar to it. But graduate school beat me down, made me question all of my career aspirations, drained me of any ambition, replaced my excitement with bitter cynicism. The obvious solution was to leave science because clearly science was to blame for all of my misery. Or was it? The truth is that yes, science is difficult, but my unhappiness was a multifactorial equation, and I was part of it. The interesting question was this: if we change part of the equation, what will the result be?
And that’s where Texas comes into the picture. After lunch with my friend Cheryl the chemistry teacher, I thought long and hard about what a postdoc could be for me. Clearly it needed to be something other than Graduate School, Part 2. What if I were more independent, more excited about my work, less scared of my boss? What if I weren’t in Chicago, with its six brutal months of winter every year? What if I lived in a place where warm is the default setting, where I almost certainly will not be wearing a wool coat in June? What if I gave this PhD a chance to really show off? As I let these questions seep into my brain, it became very clear to me that there were a lot of unknowns and until that moment, I was so convinced that a postdoc would be awful that I wasn’t even willing to consider otherwise. For all my scientific training, I was unable to see that graduate school, like every experience, is just an experiment. Change the conditions, get a different result. It’s that simple.
Finally, I was warmed up to the possibility of a postdoc. I was still very skeptical, and I certainly wasn’t excited, but I was ready to look and see what I could find. My friend Josh reminded me to focus on the process, which got me thinking: what do I like about science? What do I find fascinating? The answer was simple: I like behavior. I like flies. I like molecular biology. I like experiments. I like sex. When I mixed all those things together, I came up with this plan: look for labs that study sexual behavior in fruit flies. Bingo.
Surprisingly, I found just one lab in the United States that has published a significant number of papers in this area: Hubert Amrein’s lab, located in sunny Durham, North Carolina. How wonderful!, I thought. I love Durham! It’s in the South! It’s warm! It’s beautiful! Nervously, I contacted Dr. Amrein about a position, expecting nothing. To my surprise, he e-mailed me back quickly and enthusiatically. One thing led to another, I interviewed with his lab, and boom: job offer. I was absolutely elated. The problem was that a week after that, I had a second job offer, this one at the University of Iowa. It was a great offer, and I was utterly torn between them.
But wait, there was another twist. Dr. Amrein’s lab was in Durham but it wouldn’t be for much longer, because he had accepted a position at Texas A & M University in College Station, Texas, just a 45-minute car ride from Houston. Texas? Seriously? What? It was such a bizarre twist, and now my job offer had this totally unknown factor in it: the Texas factor. What could I possibly think about Texas, having never been there and being filled with all sorts of Northern fears about Texas? Like, it’s hot. Really freakin’ hot. There’s no water—it’s a desert down there, right? All they eat is beef, corn-fed beef, that they purchased with their oil revenues. They’ve never even heard of a vegetarian, let alone met one. Everyone sounds like George W. Bush and they all say “nu-cu-ler” instead of “nu-cleeee-ar,” the way it’s supposed to be pronounced. And everyone is an evangelical Christian, trying to save the souls of us poor, unbelieving heathens. God, it sounded like hell.
And yet, Matt had recently moved to Texas, also for work. He was loving it, but then again, he’s a Southerner. (Although, to be honest, I don’t know how he pronounces nuclear. I’ll check and get back to you.) Once Texas became the home of someone I adore, I started paying more attention to it. For one thing, the weather in Texas sure looks nice in March. And I’ve always wanted to live in the South, at least for a little while. Texas, to my mind, seemed exotic and interesting. Also, Matt told me today that there are lots of swimming pools in Texas, which is good because I have too many bikinis that I never wear. I realized that Texas could be a wonderful place to spend a few years as a postdoc. It could be my next big adventure, in a big beautiful state.
With my two job offers in mind, I proceeded to ignore my decision for a week. The two offers seemed perfectly balanced; I couldn’t choose between them, and if I chose one, I couldn’t lose. They were amazing offers, and I wanted to accept both positions. I knew I couldn’t, but I just wasn’t ready to choose. Finally, I made a list. I scribbled down all the things that mattered to me, and I ranked each offer according to these objective criteria. Then I tallied up the scores and announced the results to myself: I was moving to Texas.
Yes, Texas. Now that all the hard work is behind me, I’m excited about my new job. I feel confident that I have what it takes to be successful. I have this sense of knowing what I’m getting myself into, and knowing what it takes to muddle through the bad times in the lab. My new boss is very excited about me joining the lab, and I feel hopeful that we will work well together. But we shall see. Like the rainbow, these impressions of mine are illusory: the reality may resemble the illusion, but I’ll never find the pot of gold at the bottom. I hope to be surprised and delighted by what I find during my next adventure. I hope they have good grocery stores and farmers’ markets in College Station. Most of all, I hope I find inspiration. I’ll take that over a pot of gold any day of the week.