The winding road...
I decided to share some of my personal journey to help people see that not everyone’s career path is picture-perfect or follows a clearly proscribed order. I hope that my story may be encouraging for those taking a less linear career pathway or wondering if they should take that leap of faith and an embark on a new path.
Winding Path by Memories Visual Depot licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
I grew up in New York City. A first generation college student and immigrant. My career track was not very linear at all, and there were many potholes along the way. I spent a lot of time as a kid in Central Park and the many museums of NYC, including one of my favorites, the American Museum of Natural History. I was fortunate as a young girl that my mom always found a way for our family to escape to rental house on the seashore or a lake for a few weeks every summer. I loved swimming, body surfing, and fishing, and was a total bookworm as a kid. I celebrated Earth Day. I attended public schools, including the high schools you have to test into (P.S. 6, Hunter College High School, Stuyvesant High School), I fell in love with biology in high school, but then dropped out of tenth grade, failing all my classes except geometry (it was very complicated at home). I also ran away from home and supported myself for a while working as a prep cook in a Middle Eastern restaurant and as a bookkeeper for a property management company. I persevered, realized I needed to finish my education, and eventually returned home for a little while to finish high school at City-As-School and then applied to colleges.
I attended Hampshire College, a very progressive college in Massachusetts. I managed to garner scholarships, work study, and student loans to cover most of the expenses; my family helped out also. I selected a concentration in photography and film, and worked a part-time work-study job at the college switchboard (seriously, they had one!). One of the courses I ended up taking was on the science of holography. I worked with two other film and photography students on an independent project over the winter break in January to produce curved, 180 degree holograms. We worked in the basement of the science building at night (when the HVAC system was off) on a lead table, using a laser, mirrors and beam splitters, and special film in a curved holder we designed, to make very long exposures of our subjects. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my interest in the theoretical and practical physics of light would resurface as a strong foundation for when I delved into biological oceanography and aquatic photosynthesis several years and chapters later in my life.
I took a semester off to do an internship with a photojournalist, but at the last minute my internship sponsor backed out. I ended up working in restaurants while developing my photography portfolio independently. I set up my tiny studio apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood so that it could be temporarily converted into a darkroom when I wanted to print my photographs. I was no longer convinced I needed to finish college if I was going to be an artist. I enjoyed the creative energy of the city and the art scene.
Source: By <a href="//en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Wickkey&action=edit&redlink=1" class="new" title="User:Wickkey (page does not exist)">Wickkey</a> - Taken with my own camera., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
I worked as a waitress, bartender, cook to support myself. The work as a cook ended up being very creative. I worked my way up the ranks in a small but very popular restaurant that had a new menu every day. I contributed to developing the daily menus and testing out recipes for the cookbook the owners published. I continued to work with them as they opened a second restaurant, and eventually managed their growing catering division. (The restaurant is still in business in a new location -check it out if you are in NYC!).
In the midst of all this, I fell in love, got married, and had a son. An important mentor to me in my extended family kept nudging me to re-consider college and my career prospects. I reconnected with my interests in biology and the environment. I decided to return to school to pursue a science journalism career. I felt I had something to offer as a translator and communicator of science, especially in the environmental sciences. I enrolled in Brooklyn College in a special evening baccalaureate program for working adults, figured out some daycare, and worked part-time for an the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment (sadly, it closed in 2009). My husband and I managed to juggle work, school, and childcare, with some help from my mom too.
Source: the author
I majored in biology to get my science background dialed in. Along the way I became awe-struck by the wonders of marine life and ecology. Some of my professors urged me to go to graduate school and become a scientist. I was very unclear about what that involved, exactly, but they were very persuasive and encouraging. So I decided to give it a try. My last year I worked on a research project with my ecology professor in the salt marshes of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The thought of writing a dissertation was still incredibly intimidating. However, I was enjoying doing science and imagined I would learn what I needed to know along the way.
I took the GREs and applied to about 8 PhD programs. I had good grades, enthusiastic letters of recommendation, and strong GRE scores, except for one which was abysmal (and it was decidedly not a predictor of my quantitative abilities and skills). I applied for the NSF predoctoral fellowship (as it was know then). That one abysmal GRE score meant I didn’t rank high enough to merit a fellowship award. I didn’t really know I needed to reach out to individual professors and talk with them either. Nonetheless, I was tentatively accepted into a couple programs, contingent on getting an NSF award. That didn’t happen, obviously. In the end, I received two real offers. One included a promise of several years of teaching assistant support and tuition waivers and the professors paid for me to fly out and visit with them and their students. I was impressed, excited, and intimidated all at the same time. Another only promised one year of TA support and it was not clear what would happen after that. I would still need to identify a mentor. That one seemed super risky to me. With a family in tow, you can imagine which offer I took. And it was one of the best decisions of my life.
My first years in grad school were not easy for me. I experienced full-blown impostor syndrome - but I didn’t know that was a thing until much later in life. I was very fortunate to have landed in an excellent and very supportive lab with an amazing pair of mentors and a terrific cohort of grad students and postdocs. I was also tenacious and focused on learning as much as could as fast as I could. And I made friends inside and outside of the university. Having a kid in school made it easier to build ties to the local community and have something else to focus on when things felt overwhelming at grad school. Many of these folks remain friends and colleagues to this day. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to check out your prospective mentor(s0 and their lab culture, and the university/program culture too, to make sure it feels like a good fit for you, before you start your own graduate student journey.
I took a giant leap of faith, moved with my family across the country, and started my PhD when my son was 5 years old. My husband at the time was able to land a position in a grad program at an adjacent university too. Some planning and a lot of luck. We were fortunate to have extended family and in-laws who believed in us and were able to provide a financial safety net (which we relied on a number of times). I benefited from wonderful PhD mentors, worked hard, wrote grant proposals, applied for scholarships, worked as a teaching and research assistant, took out student loans (still paying those off), and had some decent luck along the way.
Source: the author
I did finally get some love from NSF as a postdoc. I was awarded an international postdoctoral fellowship to do research in Chile. I was fortunate to have a supportive and adventurous family who let me move us all to Chile for two years. It turned out to be the same two years when the former Chilean dictator, Augosto Pinochet, was detained in England as Spain attempoted to extradite him to face charges of human rights violations. My son ended up attended a small public school on the coast, and learned how to bodyboard with the local kids. He also learned to speak Spanish including all the best Chilean slang and curse words. It was an extraordinary adventure and learning experience for us all.
My teenage self could never have imagined I would end up as a university professor and a scientist. And no one would plan to take a pathway like mine to end up where I am today. However, I can honestly say that every twist and turn has enriched my life and understanding in an important way.