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Science: The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me

It’s new-semester’s eve—the night before classes begin at the university where I teach. As I stand on the precipice of academic year 2016-2017, looking with hopeful eyes toward an always-uncertain semester, my mind wanders back to the beginning of my foray into the world of science. Tonight, my message is tailor made for the young women out there who might find themselves in a science class that they don’t want to be in. I know, it kind of sucks.

My guess (and it is an educated one) is that most of you are taking my class because 1) you have to take a science class, and 2) either your advisor told you this class fits your schedule, or you heard from someone that the class is not too hard.

There might be a handful of you who are somewhat intrigued by geology—earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, landslides, and other natural disasters may have caught your attention via a show on the Discovery Channel, or some personal experience growing up in a hazard-prone location (AKA, California)

Mt. St. Helens ash explosion May, 1980.

Mt. St. Helens ash explosion – May, 1980. Isn’t it sexy?

For others, you may have no idea what geology is, but you figure it is easier than chemistry, physics, or biology and so why not give it a shot?

To all of you in any of these categories, I say proudly that I WAS YOU! My scientific career began the day I wandered into Geology 101 at Syracuse University, a cranky freshman English major determined to hate the class and just get through it with a decent grade. I sat in the back row in my Doc Marten combat boots, sulked, and tried not to fall asleep. (We didn’t have smart phones then so I didn’t have many options)

I wanted to be a dancer. Science was never part of the discussion when I was a kid.

I wanted to be a dancer or a writer. Science was never part of the discussion when I was a kid.

Much to my surprise, I found myself intrigued. Images of mountains and valleys and rivers and volcanic eruptions all invaded my non-science-y brain and refused to let go. It scared me a little. I thought to myself, “I might like this stuff but there is no way I can be a science major. I am not good at math or science. Science is too hard for me.”

And there it was—the phrase that creeps into the minds of bright little girls everywhere and begins to unfairly degrade their confidence:

Science is too hard.

Look, I am a scientist and I can confirm that science is hard. It is really freaking hard. But it is not TOO hard. What does that even mean, really? If it were too hard, nobody would be able to do it.

But people do it. Even people like me do it, and I was not the ideal candidate for a science program. I had always been a writer. I was interested in literature and poetry. My parents weren’t professors or engineers or even teachers. My dad was a musician and my mom was a housewife. Neither of them went to college. I always liked school, but I struggled with math and science. In high school I took advanced placement English and opted out of pre-calculus. Instead, I took “modern” math, which was a mixture of probability and statistics and other stuff that didn’t hurt my brain too much. So when I went to college I knew exactly where I was headed: I would be a writer, and to hell with math and science.

They were too hard.

Here’s the tragedy of all of this: my story is not unique. It is a well established fact that young girls are just as interested in math and science as boys are in elementary school, but somewhere around middle school girls are far more likely to utter that dreaded phrase, “science is too hard,” or its equally crappy counterpart, “math is too hard,” than boys are.

What the actual fuck.

It is just one more example of why we, as women, have to work that much harder to put this kind of nonsense to rest. We, as strong, smart, capable, unique, thinking women have to do even more to prove that we can do everything men can do, and better.

So here is my plea to all of the young women who will set foot in my sacred hall of learning this semester—

Come to crush it. Come ready to rock the hell out of some science. Come ready to show the boys what you are made of.

Me after crushing a five-day excursion in a snowy Tibet valley, doing geology for my PhD research.

Me after crushing a five-day excursion in a snowy Tibet valley, doing geology for my PhD research.

Now I know most of you will not end up pursuing science as a career. That is irrelevant. Having basic knowledge of the scientific process is absolutely invaluable to the overall impact you can have on the world around you. Understanding how data is gathered and analyzed, being able to read and decipher a graph, and engaging in critical thinking, are all skills that will make you a better, deeper, more intelligent person. Period.

And ladies, in this critical time in our nation’s evolution toward being a more equal and just place, you cannot underestimate the importance of using your voice, your brain, and your free will. This is the time to push yourselves to the boundaries of your comfort zones and beyond.

Ladies, this is the time.

I wasn’t born destined to be a scientist, but science was the best thing that ever happened to me. It took me well beyond my comfort zone and forced me to work harder than I ever had, think more deeply that I ever had, and fight harder than I ever had to gain recognition and respect in a field dominated by men. And you know what?

Doing science was hard. Becoming a scientist was the most difficult thing I ever did. But it was also the most rewarding.