The Sad Story of How I Fell Out of Love with Science

by Art Li
Image Description: A scientist is standing in front of a microscope. Only their torso and hands are visible. The background to their left is a geometric pattern of laboratory equipment, representing the sterile and robotic aspects of science. To their right is a background of DNA helices, plants, insects, and cells, representing the appeal of science in organic forms. Illustration by Alexa Fishman www.alexafishman.com/

Image Description: A scientist is standing in front of a microscope. Only their torso and hands are visible. The background to their left is a geometric pattern of laboratory equipment, representing the sterile and robotic aspects of science. To their right is a background of DNA helices, plants, insects, and cells, representing the appeal of science in organic forms. Illustration by Alexa Fishman

Science is an intriguing field of study, but many are pushed out of the discipline for a variety of systematic and structural reasons. Specifically in higher education, established systems of teaching science can alienate students. How can science be redefined in a more honest, accountable, and engaging way?

February 22, 2016

 

 

Audio Transcript:

I first fell in love with science at the tender age of 11. I was inspired by Roosevelt Middle School’s resident Science Guy, an exceptionally engaging teacher named Andy Dye. Like many other scientist role models who shaped my passion, he was tall, white, slightly quirky, with roguish charm — Einstein meets Bill Nye in a 30-year-old body. I, on the other hand, was a short and nervous Asian boy preoccupied with the most debilitating of social pressures: Being Cool.

Mr. Dye’s ability to breathe life into scientific systems and oh-so-casually explain the intricacies of our bodies, the universe, and more was stupefyingly cool to me and so it was that I fell in love, first with his coolness as a teacher, and later with the subject he taught as a means to achieve that coolness.

It helped that Mr. Dye rewarded my curiosity and eagerness to answer questions correctly in class with mini-Snickers. It helped even more when he started running out of candies to feed me and refused to let me answer more questions, instead feeding my slowly growing ego. With Mr. Dye’s sweet encouragement I began to trust my own intelligence and intuition and started building a sense of pride in my capabilities as a scientist-to-be.

Having always felt an outsider as a Chinese American living in a predominantly white town, it also felt rewarding to have a place where I felt comfortable excelling. My peers never questioned my middle-school expertise and in fact began to defer to me on matters of biology, even as they teased me for my unidentifiable-to-white-people lunches, slanty eyes, and clothing. I was never given the chance to explain to them the ingredients in the carefully prepared chicken stew my dad packed me, but they were all ears whenever we had to do worksheets in class. Being given space (as a result of my race) to be the best was intoxicating, and undoubtedly shaped the appeal science held in my eyes.

This was also the time when my parents were going through divorce proceedings. I had moved to Oregon with my dad immediately following his split with my mom, which meant I was grappling with being a newcomer at school, my racial identity, and emotional turbulence at home all at once. I was ultimately drawn to science because it promised order and structure in a world that was very confusing.

As a shy and introverted kid, I often found people unpredictable, but the framework of reason offered by science provided another way for me to understand the world I lived in. The regularity of crystalline structures exposed under microscopes; the cyclical and ever-moving dance of metabolic processes, gently shunting molecules through individual steps to form one symphonic rhythm; the twisting, interlocked products of DNA synthesis; and the self-replicating, creative mechanisms of mitosis – all these struck me as beautiful, in an orderly way, and painted a grounding backdrop for me throughout the turbulence of growing up.

And thus I arrived at Pomona College as a sweaty young freshman, infatuated with science, and ready to create a new life for myself. I was glad to be out of Oregon and back in California, and I was glad for the clichéd college opportunity to remake myself – less shy nerd, more sexy scientist. Importantly, I felt that my success as a scientist was what defined and would continue to define me as a person. It felt exciting to be taking the first real steps towards filling Mr. Dye’s shoes.

However, this youthful passion wore off exponentially over my four years in undergraduate. My first few years were mostly spent in introductory lecture classes, learning “basic” foundational knowledge coupled with laboratory-based experimentation to support said knowledge. The format of these classes was itself a shock to me – I was no longer given the space to ask and answer questions, given the structure of lectures, and the focus was instead on cramming a maximal amount of information into a maximal number of students in a minimal amount of time.

These classes stifled my initial curiosity about science, as I had to devote more and more of my energies just to keep up with the volume of knowledge I was expected to retain. It was also disappointing to no longer receive the validation and support I had come to associate with studying science –Snickers-based, verbal, or otherwise. Being away from my parents, thrust again into an unfamiliar environment, and feeling disconnected from the teachers I emulated was chaotic, disorienting, and exactly the opposite of the science-based stability I had appreciated before college.

The lab setting in college further upset my conceptions of science. While there was some pretense in middle and high school that creative thought and curiosity were important for science, the experiments I was tasked in college felt prescriptive and restricting. Rather than being given the space to ask our own questions, we were presented fixed questions with right and wrong answers, and were ordered to run pre-designed experiments to reach expected outcomes. For the sake of time, many parts of the experiments were also taken care of for us, making the whole experience feel like an artificial performance of science in the name of learning.

As I transitioned in my third year into doing more independent research for my thesis, this feeling began to grow. Rather than being challenged to think about science and being taught how to think, it seemed I was only learning how to do science and perform scientific labor. The privilege of asking questions was largely locked away from me as an undergraduate, and all that was left were the monotonous tasks associated with basic research. In a way, these tasks did reconnect me with the order I had loved about science, but endlessly pipetting chemicals from tube to tube and watching beaker shakers gyrate for hours on end was a far more mechanical, sterile, and de-humanizing process than absorbing myself in learning the organic systems behind life itself. [1] The order that this manifestation of science sought seemed to be a perversion of the natural intricacy and structure that had originally allured me.

This science aimed to cut out human and biological elements and variables in its pursuit of a cold, lifeless, and objective truth, and I was to be reduced to no more than another part in its machinations.

The focus on work and memorization in my college years left me frequently feeling aimless, both in the immediate research work I was doing, and also in the broader context of my ambitions and dreams. Why had I bothered to invest so much energy learning about science, when the only value I seemed to serve was in the manual labor my body could provide? How had I been considered “good” at science in the past, when the amount of knowledge I was presented with in the present seemed insurmountable and overwhelming? Why did the time I spent doing science make me feel increasingly disconnected to the people around me, when in the past it had provided me with joy and connection? And why did I feel I so trapped, with no one to ask for help, in a discipline that had once freed my mind?

As my disaffection with science grew, I began to explore and connect more deeply with my Asian American identity. Previously, being Chinese had only been a justification of my scientific awesomeness – beyond that superficial pride, I had never felt very connected to my heritage, my family’s immigration history, or the complexities of my own identity. To my own surprise I began to volunteer more and more of my time with the Asian American Resource Center and Mentoring Programs on campus, and realized that these community-focused spaces were providing the stabilizing feeling that science was failing to create for me. I found a renewed sense of self within these organizations, even as my other scientific self was crumbling under the pressures of academic, “real” science.

The final blow to this scientific self came during my final year in college, when I seriously began to question my role as an Asian American pursuing a career in science. I had learned about the model minority myth in the abstract through conversations with friends at the resource center: the idea that Asian Americans, specifically wealthy and educated East Asian families, are often pointed to in our current societal construction of race as “model minorities” that are innately superior to other “minorities” and serve as role models for excellence within the umbrella of “minorities” or people of color. When I began to turn this framework to my own personal perspective, all the faith I had invested in science drained away like the liquid layer from a centrifuge tube. [2] I realized that my ability to excel during the formative years I had with Mr. Dye was facilitated in part by this racial framework. I realized the reason I felt so trapped was that I felt obligated to succeed as a scientist to preserve this racial framework. And I realized the reason I felt I had nowhere to turn was that I was expected to succeed without support or guidance but rather on my merit alone.

I very nearly failed my senior thesis that year. Almost unconsciously, I had poured most of my energy into work with the resource center and mentoring programs, and had neglected to go into lab to do the research I needed to complete my project. My denial about the situation ended abruptly when I met with my thesis advisor, who told me very frankly, “it doesn’t really seem like you want to do this anymore.”

And that is the sad story of how I fell out of love with science.

After graduation, I challenged myself to take on community-based and nonprofit work not only in an effort to distance myself from my breakup with science, but also because after leaving science it felt as though I had nowhere left to go. During the next year I continued to cultivate my political lens, learned organizing skills, and tried to put the years I had spent in class behind me. However, it always felt strange to try and forget a part of my youth, my curiosity, my passion and self. I was seeking for a way to re-integrate science with this new sense of self I had constructed – a way to merge the seemingly divergent goals of science and community.

In the process of working on this blog, I think I have come closer to having the answers I was seeking. I no longer think that I was wrong to believe in the vision of science that I had admired so intensely when I was younger. I want to keep believing in a science that promotes curiosity, brings beauty to the world, and provides the scaffolding for understanding and exploring the world around us. However, my struggle in college has prompted me to expand this vision beyond the science itself and to include the contexts in which science is done. I want to believe in a science that acknowledges and values the people who work within it, strives to create justice and equity, and is fundamentally a tool driven by the people. Science in its current form is exploitative and controlled by a scientific elite. The results of scientific research are rarely presented in easily comprehensible terms, when they are publicly accessible at all, and many people do not receive the support they could use to excel as scientists in the classroom or workplace, or as curious kids. In a way, the solution to my dilemma could be as simple as injecting humanity back into science, and re-rooting science in our individual and collective needs and identities.

Although my love of science has certainly suffered a few bruises over time, I am excited to work towards creating this new vision of science. As someone who has had the privilege of matriculating through a formal science education, I believe it is my responsibility to do the work of creating this science so that others will not have to experience the heartbreak I did. For myself, I am hoping to become a high school teacher and follow more closely in the footsteps of the teacher that inspired me. For others, this responsibility may manifest through working to increase scientific “literacy” by challenging scientists to write in more accessible ways and disseminating scientific knowledge. Yet others may work to organize people working within the sciences to create just working environments, or create support networks for marginalized folks within the sciences. Ultimately, I hope that our collective efforts will result in the creation of a better science I can love once again – and with luck, there will be plenty of mini-Snickers for all at the end. [3]


[1] Pipettes are used to move amounts as small as one microliter, one-millionth of a liter (approx. the size of a large soda bottle), with relative precision. Beaker shakers are large machines used to mix solutions, thereby saving the weak arms of scientists from extended physical labor.

[2] Centrifuges are machines used to separate particles in a liquid suspension. In the research I did, we filled tubes with bacterial goop in a solution of bacteria-friendly liquids, then spun them in the centrifuge. Spinning the tubes at high speeds caused centrifugal force to collect the solid bacterial material in a dense lump at the bottom of the tube, while lighter matter and remaining liquid continued to float at the top.

[3] I am not paid by Snickers. Promise.


 

 

 

Art Li is a Chinese American ex-scientist who alternates between pondering the possibilities for science as a tool of liberation and eating a lot.