What are little girls
made of good at?
What I can’t help but ponder the fact that I am an accidental scientist. The thought struck me like a ton of bricks the other day. Growing up in Eastern Europe, where skills like math, English and “computers” [as my parents called it, referring to an fuzzily-defined perhaps computer science-related discipline] was THE THING to be good at. I was good at English. That’s it. Well, also humanities, languages and literature. But science, math and “computers” were just not MY thing. Mostly because, from a young age, I was labeled as the child who was not good at those things. And because I was supposedly not good at them, I found the STEM disciplines to be quite boring and excruciating to study. Never ever did I imagine in my wildest dreams that I would be a scientist when I “grow up.”
A rude awakening (in like a really awesome way).
I came to the US, and I happened to excel at math and science in high school and then in college. I was shocked to receive “A”s and “B”s in those classes (whereas back home, I struggled and scrambled to barely just barely pull off my “B” minuses in math and chemistry). I was incredibly surprised when my really great calculus college professor said that I “asked all the right questions” and then recommended me to be a Calc II tutor for the following semester (no, no, I decided not to be one, I still believed (even after receiving an A in Calc II) that I was no good at math). But I did end up taking Linear Algebra “just for fun” my senior year [I mean, WHAT. THE. HECK?!] What I did find so remarkable during that time in college was the surreal feeling that I actually really did enjoy learning those subjects. Of course, I had to work hard and study my ass off [compared to my fellow American friends, for whom the first couple of years in college were, what felt like, a mere review], but it was such a foreign concept for me to be actually kind of okay at those subjects. It felt so good. I felt like a total badass.
Not a badass.
I still do sometimes. It is definitely harder to think of myself as “badass” nowadays. Grad school kind of brings you down from that state of near-euphoria. Motherhood in conjunction with a postdoc definitely humbles the shit out of you. For the longest time, sleep-deprived and zombie-like, I couldn’t help but think that maybe I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I felt like I was not cut out to be one of those high-energy, high-achieving, happy mothers–I was doing a below-average job at home and in my postdoc. It was not a very good feeling. The fleeting undefined [at the time] thoughts of being an accidental scientist were eating away at me. “Maybe just maybe all those people in my childhood were right, maybe I’m not good at these things….”
The “new normal.”
A few years went by, and the “new normal” came around. Not like the immediate postpartum “new” survival mode normal, but a place, where I started feeling better about my achievements in lab, and about my simultaneous mothering abilities. Reflecting back on this change, I can’t help but notice the fact that many of my friends helped me through the hard times. Most of them are mothers with children around my children’s age. Not all of them are scientists, or are even in related STEM disciplines, but all of my friends have this hard-core innate fierceness—they are passionate about something, and are good at what they do. “Some days you will kick ass at both—you do a good job at work, and you come home and you are this awesome parent. Other days, you only get one of those right. Days were you suck at both will hopefully be few and far in between”—some friends told me. I draw my motivation from them. Also, having a project that works most of the time helps too. Getting positive results in my experiments, whenever the lab gremlins stay away from my stuff, is a really awesome feeling. Really awesome feelings at work help you stay confident and productive.
Cold War Gender Gap.
So, going back to labels and women in science professions. I wonder what it is exactly that helped me excel at science, considering where I came from? In other words, why/how did I become a scientist?
In the US, the “gender gap” is something that is discussed ad nauseam—there are fewer women who graduate with their PhDs and hold jobs in the STEM disciplines. In Soviet Russia, circa 1960s, approximately half of the chemistry PhD degrees were awarded to women. Decades later, in the US, the percent of PhDs awarded to women in chemistry has been pretty steady at about 5% (Figure 1). So it looks like I grew up in the right place to become involved in science. It also appears as though Soviet Russia was quite progressive at the time, way ahead of the US in terms of educating women. So why wasn’t I “good” at science back home?
From personal experience, I discovered that in the US, if you showed interest in biology, chemistry, math, etc. you received assistance and encouragement. My [high school] teachers and [college] professors in the US seemed eager to take the time with answering questions. They genuinely seemed excited to help. Back home, for reasons unknown to me, my questions were received with less patience, and many of them were “stupid.” So what I can’t help but notice is that, in a country where education was a big deal and women were encouraged to partake in studying hard disciplines, you were either innately talented or you were not. There wasn’t like an in-between area, where you just needed to be steered in the right direction. There wasn’t much support, because if you needed it, you were weak and needed to stick to studying humanities.
So today I am thankful that I have seen both sides—flaws and strengths in the education systems on two continents in two completely different societies. My grade school education, although full of labels and exasperation, allowed me to learn English so well, that when I came to the US, I was able to pick up high school sophomore classes with relative ease. I am thankful for my education in the US, because I was able to achieve unimaginable—become a scientist and learn to love science. Like I learned to love marinara sauce, Brussels sprouts, incessant perpetual rain (I live in the Pacific Northwest), Cheddar cheese, skunk smell (yes, I know, I know…)–all things unfamiliar to me before coming to this country. It is nice to remember where I started, and how people labeled me as something I was not, and be able to overcome that. It makes me feel kind of thoroughly good again. Like an accidental [scientist] badass. Or something like that.