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Working In Science Was A Brutal Education. That’s Why I Left.

Science was a place I ultimately left, not so much because I wanted to, but because I had to.

Posted on February 17, 2020, at 8:55 a.m. ET

Stephanie Singleton for BuzzFeed News

Do you miss being a scientist? some people ask.

Sometimes.

When people talk about science, they usually mean people in white lab coats doing things, like solving equations on the board or preparing solutions in beakers. What they mean is science as this crude mechanism of discovery by which humans refine over decades and centuries a small kernel of knowing. What they mean is grant dollars. What they mean is wild hair. What they mean is clean, aseptic, analytical. Brainy little robot people. White.

I try to be honest about my time in science — about the feeling of satisfaction I had when I plotted all of my confocal data and there was a beautiful curve depicting the drop-off in signal as one moved further down the tissue of the gonad. I think about the calculations we did on scraps of paper to check the ratios of inheritance of the genes we introduced. I think of the little side room where we took our coffee and bagels. I think of the feeling of friendship and family that comes with being in a big lab, where everyone has a place, a role, an expertise, a skill. I remember the surprise I felt when people started to come to me because I knew something, because I could help. And how rare that was for me.

For the better part of several years, I saw my labmates every day. For hours and hours. Every holiday, every break, we stayed. We worked. We supported each other. We fought. We feuded. We gossiped. We threw parties for each other. We celebrated. We said goodbye at graduations and retirements. There were people who supported me and cherished me and looked after me. People who treated me like I mattered. A lab is a family. In a way.

Science was beautiful and it was wild and it was unknowable. Science was spending days and weeks on a single experiment with no way to know if it would work and no real way to tell if it had worked. Science was like trying to find your way to a dark forest only to realize that you had always been inside of the forest and that the forest is inside of another, greater, darker forest. Science was laughing with my labmates about television the night before, about the song of the summer, about tennis, about the unruly nature of mold growing on our plates, about cheap wings at Buffalo Wild Wings. Science was being taught to think. Taught to speak. Science was a finishing school. Science was a brutal education. Science made me ruthless. Science made me understand the vast beauty of the world.

But science was also working 15 hours a day for weeks or months. Science was working weekends and holidays. Science was being called lazy for taking a break. Science was the beat of doubting silence after I answered a question put to me. Science was being told that racism was not racism. Science was being told that I was fortunate that I had running water while growing up and that I was actually privileged because there are some places that do not. Science was being told that I was mistaken for a waiter at a party because I had worn a black sweater. Science was being told that I had to work harder despite working my hardest. Science was being told that I talked too much. Science was being told that I was too loud. Science was being told that I was behind, always behind. Science was being told that I had failed but had been gifted a pass by virtue of who you are. Science was being told that I had never once been to class despite attending every session and office hour because I was mistaken for someone else.

Science was being the only black person in the program for four years. Science was saying nothing because I was tired of being corrected about the particulars of my own experience. Science was being told that I should consider moving to the other side of town where more black people live. Science was someone suggesting that I find a church in order to find community. Science was having my hair stroked and touched. Science was being told that I was articulate. Science was watching people’s eyes widen slightly in surprise when I told them what program I was in. Science was the constant humiliation of wondering if I had justified my presence or if I had made it harder for the next black person to get admitted. Science was having to worry about that in the first place.

Science was a place I ultimately left, not so much because I wanted to, but because I had to. Science is not being able to say that because I reflexively feel the rebuttal waiting on the other end of that sentence: You could have made it work if you wanted it enough. Science is not knowing whether I wanted it enough.

Does science influence your writing?

Oh, sure. I guess.

Do you write science fiction?

No, I write domestic realism.

After the above exchange, people sometimes look at me like I’m joking and at any moment will drop the façade to reveal that I do in fact write and love science fiction, after all.

But no, I do not write science fiction. I think that if people knew more scientists and spent significant time in their company, they would understand that the worst possible preparation for a career as a science fiction writer is an intensive science education. My training as a scientist makes it difficult to absent myself in the way I need to in order to write good fiction. I can never turn off the part of my brain that knows about protein folding or microscopy or tissue preparation or stem cells or physics or chemistry. Writing science fiction would be an extended exercise in pedantry.

People presume that science and writing are quite different. But they are both ways of knowing. They are ways of understanding the greater mystery of the world. They are systems of knowledge and inquiry. I do not understand something until I have written it, or more accurately put, until I have written my way through it.

Science was being the only black person in the program for four years. Science was saying nothing because I was tired of being corrected about the particulars of my own experience. 

I think in many ways, the best preparation for a writer is a period of prolonged and rigorous thought about a difficult and complicated question. You learn to assemble your resources. You learn to fight with yourself. You learn to quarrel on the page with your worst ideas and with the ones you hold dearest. You treat your expectations with suspicion. You demand proof. You demand evidence. You think hard about the alternate hypothesis or other explanations, and you devise strategies to root these out. You learn to live with doubt. You try to prove yourself wrong. You look for places where you have been too soft. Too vague. You eliminate language that contains falsehoods. You eliminate language that can mislead your reader. You ask questions. You pursue answers with all the energy you can muster. You try to put language to what it is you observe. You develop a stamina for iteration. You develop a thick skin. You learn to seek criticism. You treat criticism like kindness. You churn the raw material of life into something that can be understood, and when you fail, you marvel at the mystery of things.

Do you miss science?

Yes. No. Yes. No.

Sometimes, when I don’t feel well, I consider the question of how to derive an expression for the degradation of a molecular species in a particular tissue under a given set of circumstances. Old calculus. I turn to YouTube lectures from MIT about thermodynamics. I think of my first winter in Madison, Wisconsin.

The first snowfall was in October. It had been a hot, rainy summer, so much so that the weather seemed to turn all at once with very little warning. I was either in the middle or at the start of my second rotation as a biochemistry graduate student, working in a biophysical chemistry lab and spending most of my day in the windowless instrument facility in the basement. My project was to deduce the effect of protein concentration on the ability of a polymer of DNA to wind itself. I spent a lot of time pipetting various liquids into each other in little cuvettes, slotting them into a machine, and then waiting for the reading. It was the kind of work to which I felt ideally suited, and I could have gone on that way forever. I had recently moved to the Midwest from Alabama to pursue a PhD, and it seemed as likely as anything else that I would go on pipetting and measuring the effect of things like DNA polymer length and protein concentration on DNA winding. It was as removed from the circumstances of my previous life as anything else, and so I didn’t have a compelling reason to doubt that this would be the shape my life held.

But I remember sitting down at the desk in the lab and looking out the broad window. There was a large tree at the center of the courtyard that had recently turned yellow. Fall was there in name, but not in temperature. The labs were kept quite cold, and so I wore a sweater indoors and shucked it as soon as I got outside. But that day, I looked out of the window and saw snow drifting down. The flakes were thick and fluffy, and they seemed almost fake. It was the first time I had seen snow in years, and I was totally enamored by it. The other people in the lab were on edge because snow in October portended something dark and awful — a hard winter, a long, brutal freeze. Where they saw inconvenient travel and slushy roads, I saw something beautiful if frivolous, a minor novelty. Winter came early that year, and it didn’t end until the very beginning of the following summer. When I went to the lake on my birthday in early June, there was still ice in the water.

People presume that science and writing are quite different. But they are both ways of knowing.

When people ask me about my time in science, it is this day which presents itself to me in jewel-like clarity. It is the day something about my life altered irrevocably. Or perhaps it is that the snow has accumulated, the way all such moments do in life, the weight of meaning, of prophecy. Inevitability is an artifact of retrospection. It is because the snow represented a stark deviation from the previous course of events in my life, at the precise moment when my life was changing so wildly, that I remember it. It is not that the snow changed me, but it came at a point when I was starting not to resemble myself. I cannot use the snow to explain to people what my life was like in science. It has the whiff of superstition, folklore. It feels too much like a memory and not enough like an answer. I do not tell them about the snow or how it seemed a benediction at the outset of something I needed desperately to work.

It was only later that I realized this was wishful thinking, and that the snow was just snow.

Do you think you’d ever go back to science?

That part of my life is over now.

I’ve come to understand that what people want in such a situation is to have their own conceptions of the world confirmed. That is, they want me to say that when you leave science because you have written a novel and a book of stories and have decided to attend an MFA program in creative writing, you are doing something that is antithetical to science. People presume that it is akin to picking up and leaving your home in the middle of the night under great duress, never to return. What they want is the spectacle of the forgotten treasured item, the confirmation that something has been lost, perhaps forever.

I think if people knew what it was that I left, then they’d know better than to ask. It would be like asking someone if they were sad to have left their home with no prospect of returning. It would be like asking someone if they were sad to have left their faith behind. It would be like asking someone if they were sad to have given up some fundamental idea about who they are. It would be like asking someone if they were sad to have watched their life burn to the ground. It would be like asking someone if they were sad to have left their family and friends.

They would mind their own business if they knew.

But they do not know, and so they say things like Science, wow, that’s so cool, like, do you miss it?

And I smile because that is what I have learned to do. Because explaining is too hard. Too messy. There is no clean or easy or simple way to make it known to others that I left because I had to, because it was necessary to leave — that I do miss it, but I also don’t because I’m still that person but not that person, that every day I remind myself less of the person I was then. It’s sad, like losing a memory of myself, and all those years are lost to me now, all the little tricks and habits of home dropping down and away, as I become this other person known for this other thing, and it’s too much in the moment to say that I miss it both more and less every day, that I become a person more capable of appreciating what is lost in the grand scheme of things but less a person who knows what it is I’ve actually lost, and that there is some painful, brutal, awful misalignment in the scale of those two losses.

When people ask if I miss science, the only answer available to me is an incomplete solution to the problem: Yes. No. Sometimes. It’s over now.


Riverhead

Brandon Taylor is the senior editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub. His writing has earned him fellowships from Lambda Literary Foundation, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction. Learn more about his first novel Real Life here.

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