a failed scientist

I just read this great article by one of my favorite science writers. It’s relatively short as far as his pieces go, but it’s an excellent introduction to some exciting developments happening in cardiology research right now.

The problem with broken hearts is that they just keep breaking. While organs like your liver or skin excel at regenerating themselves after injuries, the heart is the class dunce. If its muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, die during a heart attack, they are replaced by scar tissue rather than fresh muscle. This temporarily supports the damaged tissue but in the long term, it weakens the heart and increases the risk of more heart attacks. It’s no wonder that heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. By 2030, it’s estimated that failing hearts will kill more than 23 million people every year.

Since the early 2000s, scientists have been trying to use stem cells from a person’s own body to persuade their hearts to grow new muscle. Stem cells can produce all of the various types of cell in the body, and the hope was that they’d generate new cardiomyocytes if injected into an ailing heart.

I encourage you to go read the rest, it’s good shit.  But for now, my point isn’t really about the science, not exactly.

I spent 3 weeks learning all this science back in February, and I should have written about it then. The biology involved is bizarre and fascinating. The stakes are high. We might be at the edge of a major step forward in medicine. It’s a topic most people have some personal ties to. It’s an all-around winning great story.

And I could have written it. I was in the perfect position to do so–in addition to having read all the key papers and gotten excited about the material, I was being taught by several experts in the field, at least one of whom probably would have let me quote them in a story/post if I had gotten up the guts to ask. I even had a rough outline that followed a similar basic structure to Ed Yong’s piece, and though I obviously can’t claim that anything I could have written would have been anywhere near as well-crafted a piece of writing, I KNEW that if I could just make myself write it, it would be at MINIMUM a great writing sample to send out for jobs, and at best could help me launch a science blog or land a writing gig. It was a popular science gold mine, and I hadn’t seen any of the major science writers/science journalism venues covering it much yet.

But it made me too sad at the time, reading and citing all those papers and telling myself–“You’ll NEVER get to do science like this. The best you can do is write about it, how do you feel about that?”

It is exciting and satisfying, honestly more satisfying than any of the best days I’ve had in bench research, to research and write a story. I love reading good papers, picking apart experiments, understanding new theories. I love even more being able to do this with some other smart people including an expert or two in the room, to volley ideas back and forth. I love distilling it all into individual teachable units, and weaving those into a story. Thinking about how to explain things best to both accurately convey the science and engage the reader is a fascinating puzzle.

And I have the basic underlying skills necessary to theoretically be good at it. I’m a decent writer, thanks more to years of bookwormishness than to deliberate practice, but decent all the same. I understand biology damn well and I’m a fucking badass at digging through the literature to learn a new field.  I’m a decent teacher. And I’ve read enough good science writing to have a rough idea of the elements of a good piece, and I know enough about the market/the major players from my own years of reading to know where to get more information/advice if I need it. I know that if I made it my goal and worked my ass off, if I practiced, practiced, practiced, I could do this. Maybe I couldn’t make a decent living doing just science writing for a long while even if I did get there eventually, but I could do this.

And part of me wants to. The part that has always loved words and romanticized writing, and the part that would love nothing more in the world than to read science papers and discuss and dissect theories and explain ideas all day every day.

But even with the perfect story laid in my lap not just once, but three separate times–the course was 3 3-week sections, each covering the latest/most innovative and exciting developments in a major field of current medical research–I couldn’t make myself do it. It made me feel sad and broken, because I felt like by committing to dedicating myself to improving my writing and teaching meant admitting that I wasn’t ever going to be good enough to do the science. Like admitting I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was, and like accepting that I would always be on the outside of science looking in.

Frankly, this is the biggest thing holding me back right now, the biggest reason why it is clear to me that I need to step back a bit and take a break before making any long-term career decisions. Because right now, one of the subjects I love most in the world, and certainly the one that I have the deepest knowledge of… is an emotional minefield for me.

Leaving grad school might be the best thing for me, in the long run. Intellectually, I 100% believe that it requires just as much intelligence and talent to write about or teach science well as it does to do science well, and that both jobs contribute meaningfully to society. Hell, I even know that I don’t have to do any job that maxes out my cognitive abilities or contributes to science in any way in order to be worthwhile human.

But after being literally kicked out of an endeavor that I care about deeply and honestly gave everything I had… I feel rejected and hurt. Betrayed.  Burned.

It’s kind of like being broken up with by a person I knew was bad for me. I loved them, cared about them, want them in my life–but I also knew that being fully committed to them was making me miserable, was going to kill me if I kept going the way I was going. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to resolve the issues that were making me miserable– I was unlikely to ever remake academic culture to be more respectful of work-life balance, to learn to healthily run on less sleep/time for self care, to be willing to brave the insane competition for jobs and for grant money that is the result of a national research budget that doesn’t even keep up with inflation. I knew I was probably going to have to make my graceful exit eventually, because I couldn’t change science enough to tolerate me and my needs, and because I couldn’t suffer thanklessly forever.

But I wanted my PhD first. I wanted that level of recognition. I wanted to be admitted to the club, and THEN choose to walk out the door. I wanted to leave on my own terms.

And so now I feel like a petulant child. I shouldn’t feel so hurt. I shouldn’t be pouting. I should be getting on with my life. I don’t want to care so much about something that was proving to be bad for me as a life choice. But I do.  I feel this way.

And until that fades, and fades a lot… I don’t think I can honestly tell you whether I can stay in science/biology-related work or not.

16 comments

  1. This is so sad and poignant. I feel this way about journalism a lot, and I quit that three years ago.

    I hope you find a way to return to science, or fall as much in love with something else.

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  3. I’m going to quote your own post back to you, because I am a jackass that way. ‘Stop saying “should” to yourself about your thoughts and feelings in any context. You feel how you feel.’ Seriously. It’s okay for you to feel upset. It’s okay for you to feel good about your abilities as a writer too. You are upset, and you are a good writer, and both these things are true so it’s okay to say them. What you said about wanting to get your PHD first really resonates with me – I totally relate to that feeling that I can go after what I want after I’ve achieved another goal first, but I truly think there is something in us that hears what you want and starts moving in that direction before you feel ready, and it’s not going to hang around until you’ve finished the other thing first.

    Oh and there are plenty of people who know their subject inside out but still can’t explain it worth a damn, so you’re right when you say teaching science is a valuable skill.

  4. I hear you, and I’m so sorry. If it helps, it’s not just you. I have been on leave for the last two quarters and I just decided to not go back for basically these reasons:

    “I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to resolve the issues that were making me miserable– I was unlikely to ever remake academic culture to be more respectful of work-life balance, to learn to healthily run on less sleep/time for self care, to be willing to brave the insane competition for jobs and for grant money that is the result of a national research budget that doesn’t even keep up with inflation. I knew I was probably going to have to make my graceful exit eventually, because I couldn’t change science enough to tolerate me and my needs, and because I couldn’t suffer thanklessly forever.”

    …those, with the final straw being one of my committee members strongly implying that my mismatch with my adviser could have been avoided if I had dug deep enough to find that he’d never graduated a female student. Fuck that noise.

    1. UGH to that committee member! That’s awful. Matching with a lab/PI is HARD, and if other professors felt he was bad with female grad students, they should have warned you!

      Much less consequential situation, but the first lab I joined in undergrad, the professor’s wife had recently passed away and the perception was that life in his lab had gotten a little chaotic. No one told me this before I joined, but AFTERWARDS multiple different professors/advisors asked “So how is everything in X’s lab?” with a slightly worried tone. The first time I was asked I was confused, and that’s when the situation was explained to me for the first time.

      As it turned out, that lab wasn’t awful… I only ended up leaving because the graduate student I was working with mastered out and there was no available project for me once he left… but if people were concerned enough to comment, why did NO ONE say anything when I talked about joining the lab? Gah!

      1. Yeah, people are generally not very forthcoming about the downsides of being in a specific lab. Since the adviser had another female grad student at the time I was joining and talked about supporting some schedule constraints she had (and you know, it’s 20-fucking-13 and silly me, I assumed we were better than this), I didn’t even think to ask that question. The senior grad student mentioned this fact off-hand after I’d been there for, oh, 9 months or so. He never mentioned it in my initial sounding-out-the-lab interviews.

  5. This is a great article ”You’ll NEVER get to do science like this. The best you can do is write about it, how do you feel about that?” I had an experience like this recently when thinking about becoming a science writer. I crashed out of astrophysics in the 1980s and became a successful “computing person”. Having earned enough to retire early I thought I’d do something fun. I like writing and I like astrophysics so I thought I’d combine the two. I dug into some astrophysics papers. It brought up all the old anxieties! “I didn’t do enough math courses, so I couldn’t do string theory research.” “I’m not really bright enough to do string theory.” “I’m (just about) understanding the mathematics in these papers, but I’ll never be able to do it myself.” “I’m just a half-baked Asimov when I want to be Feynman”. It got so bad I changed my subject and started writing about computing topics, read novels, floated round philosophy forums… anything but astrophysics. I dip into astrophysics now and again, as I still find the subject interesting (how could I not?) I maybe read the latest Hawking book, watch Brian Cox, but with a wry smile. I have to back off quickly or the “Why not me?” thoughts come back. You seem to have found your subject here, why not write the book “Failed Scientist”?

    1. I’m not quite sure yet that I’m ready to give up on science. But if that day comes, “failed scientist” may happen.

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