Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.
– Marie Curie
Nearly a century of feminine progress has been unsuccessful in eliminating gender bias within certain careers. Recently, Eileen Pollack’s inspiring article in The New York Times has sparked a flurry of praise and inquiry as to why there is still a paucity of women who pursue careers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). It strikes me as odd because women were making discoveries of human importance long before they could vote. The unfortunate reality is, just because women have the legal right to do the same things as men (in this country anyway), it doesn’t necessarily mean we get equitable opportunity to do so.
In response to this topic, I have one question: Who will encourage young women to pursue science? If not teachers, if not parents, if not ordinary folk like myself, then who?
Before you stop reading, this is not another society-bashing feminist rant. On the contrary, I hope it will be an uplifting commentary about the positive impact science can have on young lives. Moreover, if equating women’s rights with human rights labels me a feminist, well, hang on a moment while I run outside to light my bra on fire and toss it in a tree.
An important part of my day job – one that is often overlooked – involves presentations at elementary and middle school career days, at which I tell every child I can corner (little boys included) that learning and loving science will take them just about anywhere they want to go. And I’m not just blowing freshly-baked-out-of-the-oven cookie steam up their little nostrils – I genuinely mean it. I cannot explain the sense of joy and purpose that overcomes me when a 6-year-old from a school in a lower socioeconomic district looks at me and exclaims “THAT’S SO COOL!” after I show him the aquatic life stages of a mosquito. At one of these school events, a little girl asked if I was The Terminator. I asked if she actually meant The Exterminator (“you know, the Orkin man?”) because I totally understand the confusion. “No,” she replied, stoically. “I mean The Terminator.” So I told her yes; yes, I am. Every time I share these moments with children, it gives me hope for the world.
Love-Hate: It’s Not You, It’s Me (or Whose Fault Is It, Actually?)
If you had asked me after my middle school career aptitude evaluation, “Where do you see yourself in 15-20 years?” the least likely response would have been, “Studying insects in a disease surveillance facility.” My parents wanted me to become a doctor, and there was a brief window in which I thought I wanted that too. For the first three years of college, I majored in biology. Like 90% of all overzealous biology students at The University of Georgia, I also declared pre-med. I wanted to cure sick people, save lives, save the world! Yet another trait I shared with that demographic is that I was not prepared for the massive lecture halls and professors who don’t have time to hand-hold those of us who were absent the day they handed out math aptitude. I don’t know where you took your O-chem and calculus, but they were really hard.
After failing miserably in that pursuit, I was left floundering and found no solace in my academic advisor, who was noticeably beginning to steer me away from the biology department. I did not have the intestinal fortitude to tell my parents. My whole identity was crumbling around me. I had been labeled the token “smart, quiet Asian kid” all my life. I was an overachiever, a winner of scholastic awards, a bearer of the burden of all my family’s hopes. It was crushing.
So when did it all go wrong?
In her article, Pollack makes a statement that resonates profoundly with me:
The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.
She tells of the physics professor who refused to let her drop his class after failing the first exam. The professor himself received two Ds in physics classes and assured Pollack that she would find a way to succeed. So she did.
That was when I remembered my 11th grade AP Biology teacher, Dr. W. She was tough; she had high expectations for her students and dragged us, kicking and screaming, through a rigorous curriculum. She refused to let me settle for my first exam grade (I think it was a C). I hadn’t enjoyed 9th grade biology all that much but in Advanced Placement, we spent at least one day a week in the lab and, by midterm, I was fully in love with biology. I went on to pull an A in the class and performed exceptionally when I sat for the College Board exam. It was like something clicked inside of me; now I realize that Dr. W’s class was THE reason I wanted to pursue science, not for my parents or medical school.
I never received the same encouragement as a science major in college. Eventually, I switched majors and, two degrees and one decade later, still don’t have any letters after my name to designate any type of scientific aptitude. Looking back at my educational experience, I can’t help but wonder if I may have been a product of internalized negativity – did I, in fact, convince myself that math and chemistry were impossible because a handful of authority figures never encouraged me? Where would I be today if I hadn’t listened to them? It seemed to me a kind of deception that, over time, steers you away from something you were once really good at, and you wake up one day, thinking the exact opposite.
I have also wondered if growing up with non-English-speaking parents had anything to do with my success in school. My brother and I realized early on that we would have to help ourselves when it came to homework. Both my parents are very good at math, but the linguistic barrier made it difficult for them to understand English instructions. Relying on teachers was also out of the question because no one likes to be that foreign kid who is always asking for help. By the way, if you know such a kid, reach out to him or her. S/he may never realize her/his potential otherwise and waste many years wondering why. I don’t know if it’s possible to stress enough the impact that language ability can have on success, not just in scholastics but also psychological health.
Children – yes, even little girls – are born with a curiosity for the world that they keep for a while but then lose for any number of reasons. I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors, back before 4-year-olds cried over the latest iOS upgrade, before anyone ever thought to refer to childhood obesity as an epidemic. I remember chasing my reluctant brother in the woods; making “stink bombs” out of wild onions to throw at boys from tree houses; rescuing wild birds; getting spanked for being covered in ticks; and digging up rocks. I remember explaining to myself, at a very young age, why the sky was blue (I was way off but it sounded rational and pretty scientific at the time). I was thinking of all these things and Dr. W, when I decided to pick myself up from the debris left by a crashing ego, and pursue science in other ways.
It’s no one’s fault specifically, of course, but I wish someone, early on, had seen my eyes light up when observing a natural phenomenon and made it a point to cultivate that delight. I wish someone reached out to me. I wish I had the courage to ask for help.
To Love Is to Know
Science often gets a bad reputation. Nevermind that a strong science background gives us the ability to reason, to act rationally, and to see reality rather than our own delusions born from cognitive dissonance. Some people say science is not soft and touchy-feely enough for little girls, who should be focusing on the more feminine aspirations (aside from fetus gestation, I am not exactly clear on what these are). I have also heard the religious argument that science is a cold and spiritually unfulfilling pursuit, that it contributes little towards the common good in exchange for personal gain. My rebuttal is that any occupation in life, when pursued through an inflated sense of Self, is empty and serves only to glorify that Self. But if the goal of the scientist were to explore reality in order to alleviate suffering of humankind, how can anyone consider that cold and unfulfilling? Moreover, what ever happened to doing science for the sake of science?
I am still nowhere close to where I had hoped to be by now, and some days, I regret not pushing harder to succeed in math and chemistry. In some ways, it has limited me in the types of careers for which I am eligible. But there is nothing to be gained from dwelling in regret; all we can do is move forward, constantly improving ourselves.
To my family, I will always be indebted; even though my mother spent years trying to tame me, no one ever discouraged me. There was never any emphasis on my appearance or the association of my self worth with finding an ideal husband. I was taught that manners and compassion and perseverance were all that mattered.
And I ask again, who will encourage young women to pursue science (or anything else they’re told not to pursue)? If not teachers, if not parents, if not ordinary folk like myself, then who?