Sunday, November 14, 2004

Empty Exoskeleton

As you probably are all aware by now, I am unemployed and have been so for more than one month. Because Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits pay only enough to keep my modest rent and a couple other basic bills paid, I must work a variety of "odd jobs" to keep myself and my birds fed, to purchase necessities such as toilet paper, soap and cleaning supplies and to pay for access to public transit. So even though I am currently unemployed, I hold a greater number and variety of jobs now than I've ever had at any one time before. (Am I the only one who sees the irony of this situation?)

One of the "odd jobs" that I keep myself busy with is co-teaching a course in molecular evolution for a nonprofit organization. Molecular evolution is a new field of research that uses supercomputers to analyze DNA sequence data collected in the lab to clarify evolutionary relationships between organisms. The goals of this two-year course are to provide a strong exposure to cutting-edge evolutionary research to 20 "motivated" NYC area high school sophomores and juniors and also to assist them with their college applications. The first year of this course consists of lectures and lab experience which serve to build the necessary skills and knowledge so the students can select an appropriate lab to pursue a real research mini-project of their own during the second year. This course is an outreach program designed by my institution and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and several other agencies, and it is also supported with private funds provided by several community members. Students are accepted into this course on a competitive basis but no fees are collected from them.

Despite the fact that teaching for this course is a voluntary position for graduate students and postdocs seeking more teaching experience, I somehow managed to convince the Program Manager to pay me a nominal fee for my contributions. I have guest lectured this course for one year. Last winter and spring, I presented four lectures and team-taught four labs for this particular course. This autumn and winter, I am team-teaching four labs and I also am updating, troubleshooting and redesigning these labs for the Program Manager -- something that involves a lot of writing and at least a little thinking. If all goes according to plan, I am scheduled to be re-hired to give a few lectures and team-teach some labs for the winter-spring 2005 session.

Even though I am much more interested in teaching at the university level than in the highly regimented K-12 system where I would be a poor fit, I genuinely enjoy the kids with whom I work. They are all bright and most of them are eager to explore a career as a scientist. Of course, since few or none of them have ever met a scientist before, I was pleased to discover that they greatly admire me, a boost to my ravaged self-confidence. I am proud to be one of the people whom they look up to for guidance as they begin their long journey towards their careers. But often, simply being with "my students" provides me with a happy distraction from reality, especially during these gloomy days when three or four job rejection letters arrive daily in my email and snailmail boxes.

So imagine my pleasure when one of last year's graduates of this program visited the class. He is now a senior in high school and like all HS seniors, he is keenly aware of his promising future and his eagerness to move on to the next step is barely contained. Despite the fact that he does not yet know what sort of research he wishes to pursue, he plans to become a career scientist either at a major research university or perhaps at a pharmaceutical company. He was so full of joy and hope and excitement that I was momentarily spellbound. Listening to him, I could see myself in his eyes, I could hear my voice in his words, and in one heart-wrenching moment, I was stunned to realize that he has what I once possessed in abundance; hope.

I listened and gave him advice and encouragement to pursue his dreams, suddenly and uncomfortably aware of my own inability to find a job in science, indeed, to find any job whatsoever that pays a living wage. I wondered, would I have been accepted into this program if I was a HS student, applying today? Am I truly qualified to be here now, teaching this course and talking with him and his colleagues? If my students knew that I am currently unemployed, what would they think? What sort of example am I for these kids? (am I a fraud?) What valuable lessons could I possibly teach him and his colleagues when I have no visible place in my chosen profession, when I can't even find a job after 16 months and 15 days of actively searching? Furthermore, in view of my life situation, was I lying to him and his colleagues by encouraging all of them to follow their hearts when my own messed-up life is a living testament to the folly of pursuing one's passions?

But, I reminded myself, I don't know what the future holds for scientific research, so how can I predict any student's future in research? Besides, this particular student probably possesses many special qualities that I lack that will make him a better qualified and more worthy scientist than I ever was. Or maybe success has little to do with that sort of thing. Perhaps after all the hard work is done, the ultimate success in scientific research is a combination of timing and good luck? If this is the case, then my troubles are easily understood: Everyone knows that I've never been particularly lucky at any time in my life.

Still warmed by the reflected glow of his hopes as well as my own remembered dreams, I wondered then as I do now if my graduate school advisors realized that my chance for success as a research scientist was ephemeral at best. Should they have warned me about impending disaster if I continued my relentless pursuit of this one impossible (for me) dream? Perhaps my advisors really are like my parents; watching my struggles through narrowed, cruel eyes, laughing while I worked and sacrificed everything to achieve this one lofty goal, then rejoicing at my failure? Or maybe my advisors are ashamed that they ever met me? (I imagine they must be). I certainly am ashamed of myself, of my apparent uselessness, of my impotence, of my complete invisibility.

Thoughts such as these consume me now while I mourn the loss of my career, the demise of my lifelong dream that saved me from my own premature death several times, while I attempt to deal with my mangled hopes that I will ever again pursue scientific research, while I try to rebuild my shattered faith in myself and in the world in general: Will I ever believe in anything again? Should I? Can I? Without hope, without my dreams, without any enduring passion to carry me, who and what will I become?

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

2 Peer Reviews:

Blogger annalouise said...

hi- i have been unemployed for over a year and ended up on welfare for 6 months so i sympathize- but you seem lucky to have this passion for science and birds- i just forgot her name but the lady nobel (?) prize winner that did genetics experiments in her kitchen window plants- well, if you do what you can in what you want they can't take your joy and who knows recognition may come beefore your death.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Tabor said...

I was the one that told you to 'network' sweetie. While I still endorse that approach, I work for a federal science organization and I am seeing more and more cuts in our budget and fewer re-hires. Since most of science throughout the U.S. is federally funded and this administration thinks science has to do with chemical weapons, you may wish to broaden your scope of teaching school, running a housecleaning or pet sitting franchise, etc. I am NOT joking.

6:59 AM  

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