The exact moment I decided I wanted to be a scientist I was running in a human hamster wheel, strapped to a plastic seat with a belt as wide as my arm, wearing a helmet that pushed my brown-rimmed, owlish glasses all the way to the tip of my nose. I was 12 years old and just 5-feet tall—the same height I am today—my sneakers just able to press against the traction mat that lined the wall of the wheel. With a running start and a girlish yawp, I propelled myself around the wall of the wheel and allowed gravity to complete my 360 degree turn.
My flight instructor, Tracy, stood just behind me and to the left to make sure I didn't come flying out of my seat belt.
I often tell my students, my friends, my boss, and anyone who will listen that I have the best job I could imagine, because I spend my day doing things that will allow me to better understand the world.
I had closed my eyes the first time, afraid to watch the topsy-turvy flip of the world as I ran around the wheel, but, having gained confidence from my first successful rotation, I smashed my glasses more securely to my face and, with a louder whoop, ran my second and third turns in the human hamster wheel. I was just about to start my fourth revolution when Tracy, chuckling, placed her hand on my elbow and reminded me that the other Space Camp trainees were waiting for their turn.
Four months before my adventure, encouraged by my earth science teacher, Mr. Ortiz, I had entered and won an essay contest sponsored by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). As reward for writing an essay about Lise Meitner, a female physicist who, together with her colleague Otto Hahn and a team of scientists, discovered nuclear fission, SWE awarded me the chance to go to a weeklong Space Camp in Florida.
Everything about that experience was a first: It was my first trip on my own away from home, my first time on an airplane, and, I know now, my first experience with "science" as a verb.
Before my week at Space Camp, science was a noun, a subject, a collection of facts in a book loaned to me by my teacher, passed down from class to class and student to student, our names etched in ink on the inner cover. After Space Camp, science was a verb, a thing to do. Science was making a rocket that could go the highest and designing a space station that could protect the astronauts from the cold, unforgiving vacuum of space. Science was learning about action and reaction while strapped to a frictionless (air-cushioned) mock-up of a manned maneuvering unit. And, for me, science was the chance to be a leader as mission commander of a fake space shuttle mission.
Although it took a few more years, a lot of hard work, and the careful encouragement from some amazing, and amazingly kind, teachers, that trip was the first in a series of steps toward my becoming a scientist. In addition to Mr. Ortiz and the SWE essay contest, a chat with my high school chemistry teacher, Mrs. Contreras, focused my interest on the study of physical chemistry, and a summer biophysics rotation with Dr. Pedersen, a biophysicist, connected me with the graduate program through which I would eventually earn my Ph.D.
Now, during the final stage of my postdoctoral training, I am learning the techniques, scientific background, and management skills needed to become an independent investigator in telomere biology. During my postdoc I have filled my days with lots of doing: I read literature, I perform experiments, I interpret data, and I construct, using data, logic, and my imagination, models of how structures of DNA and protein coordinate their movement in the cell. I often tell my students, my friends, my boss, and anyone who will listen that I have the best job I could imagine because I spend my day doing things that will allow me to better understand the world.
As I look, now, for a permanent job in academic science, I hope that I can continue my work of teaching and discovering and pass down my love of science-as-a-verb to my own students. And as I think about how I will train and inspire my students—in the traditional way, with dynamic, inquiry-based classes and a lab stocked with gel boxes, chemicals, freezers full of samples, a tissue culture hood, and a box of notes with scribbled ideas for grants—a part of me wonders, not altogether humorously, whether I should save space in a corner of my lab for a giant human hamster wheel.
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