Have you seen the twitter hashtag #IamScience? An initiative started by Kevin Zelnio and with the aim to share stories of how scientists became what they are. Kevin published his post end of January, and since then researchers have shared their, in most cases, less than straight path to science. Kevin Storified #IamScience here and stories are also shared on Tumblr. And Mindy Weisberger’s collected quotes in a video.
Although, my path to science was by no means as rough as some of the stories that have been shared, it was far from straight either. I have touched upon parts of my background in earlier blog posts, but here I will share my way from high school to PhD scholarship a short story of some 20 years. This post is mostly for my students, who usually believe I had a career as straight as a highway in the US :-).
My senior year in high school was very tough. I completely lost my drive, and just couldn’t force myself to go to school. Unfortunately, I had moved out from my parents’ that year, so not much of parental control either. My grades started declining, and by the time I reached graduation my grades were mediocre. Luckily for me since I came from being a good student, at least I got my diploma. Today, my children laugh so hard at the fact that their mother had an (equivalent to) E in English. They also laugh hard at pictures from this period since I was experimenting a lot and my hair changed between colours such as blue, red, Bordeaux and black.
I did graduate after all, but I swore I would never go back into a classroom ever again. I started working, first various unskilled jobs, and eventually with horses. The only thing I wanted to do at that time was working with horses, and I took a job as a groom. My horse career was not brilliant, but I was happy doing what I did. Personal life was worse though, my father passed away, and I ended up in an abusive relationship which cost me most of my friends and almost the relationship with my mother. On top of that, I wasted the savings my parents had entrusted me and ended up indebted.
After four rather dark years, I took a course in logging with horses. I spent a year learning horse carriage driving and logging, and I finally left the guy. But horses is a tough business there are thousands of talented and skilled young people (girls) around, who will work for nothing. Although, I had managed to get a few really nice (though short-term) jobs, the truth started to dawn on me – since I was neither rich enough nor talented enough – I would most likely spend the better part of my youth working very hard with other people’s horses without ever being able to own one myself. And I still had my debts to pay.
Usually, in everybody’s life there is always someone special, a person that really made a difference. In my case, I’m happy to still have him by my side. When I met my husband, I was as deep down as somebody can be without using drugs or being locked up. I still have no idea what he found in the selfish, shallow, big mouthed surface I exposed in order to protect my empty, hurt soul. Luckily he saw behind that. When I met him I was between horse jobs, but worked double shifts to pay my debts, nights as a security guard, days as an office hand. He would listen for hours, but also challenge me: “Was this really how I wanted to spend the rest of my life?” With him I figured out that I loved teaching and he reminded me that despite my E in English, I was actually fluent in both English and French, wouldn’t teaching be a good idea? It was really hard to swallow. I had sworn I would never set foot in a classroom, and here I was discussing a career that would put me in a classroom for the rest of my life! I’m not sure I would have done it hadn’t it been for an extended dead line to apply for the teacher training program. Vite fait, bien fait.
I’m not sure when the change took place, probably somewhere in my first, fairly chaotic, year. I was still working two jobs on top of school, and it was not easy to adapt to academia. But somehow I realized I could not get enough of learning. I loved learning new stuff. As I approached the end of the 4-and-a-half years of study, one of my big concerns was to leave university life and look for a job, I was not, as many of my friends (and quite opposite my high school experience) tired of studying. But then another opportunity opened up, I could go on to interpreting school and do a master in conference interpreting. I jumped to that, not that I didn’t want to become a teacher, but because it seemed fun to try something different. After a year of interpreting school and with a Master’s in Interpreting, I had to start working. I started working as an interpreter, but went back to university part time, immediately. At first because my teacher training degree was a Bachelor of Education and I wanted a Bachelor of Arts, and I thought it could be fun to write papers in French and English (yes, I’m serious), later because I wanted to write a Master’s thesis.
Both teacher training and interpreting school went fairly smoothly, but my papers and theses have been another laughing stock in the family. English – two terms instead of one, French – three terms instead of one. Master’s – six (!) terms instead of two. But hey, I have worked and had three children at the same time.
When I met the director of studies to discuss a possible Master’s thesis, she asked me: “Would you be interested in doing a PhD?” I couldn’t even imagine myself doing a PhD, PhD students were those nerds who didn’t have a life and were digging themselves down in something as uninteresting as “The use of “so” in newspaper texts”. I, for my part, was just pursuing something I thought was fun at the moment, but of course the director of studies sow a seed.
And here I am, I’m hopefully soon done with my PhD thesis, I would love to continue researching, I love teaching. I’m not particularly young anymore, but when I look back, I don’t think I would have been as happy and as confident with what I’m doing had I chosen a shorter or more direct path. And of course, I am science too.