This is my first post for the “We are the World” Blogfest. (It’s a day late, just like yesterday’s Thursday Doors post on Friday. Time doesn’t always move in a linear fashion in my world.) To participate in this blogfest, join us on the last Friday of each month. As the co-hosts say, “no story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.”
While out hiking or geocaching, especially in Massachusetts but also in California, you end up seeing a lot of rock walls. But this particular mundane-looking wall is part of a larger sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy called Stone River on the Stanford Campus.
The sculpture wasn’t here yet while I was attending graduate school; it was built in 2002. It is made of sandstone bricks from campus buildings damaged in the earthquakes of 1906 and 1989, among others. The local sandstone is known for its color and the pinkish hue it reflects, especially at sunset. Continue reading Mundane Monday: Rock Wall
I have been working as an Instructor with the Boston-based educational non-profit organization, Science from Scientists, since the fall of 2013. This was a lateral career move for me after a number of years in the biotechnology industry and as a project manager in academia (more on those in another post–maybe).
I realized when I was doing the Blogging 201 class last month that my blog’s tag line, “The Brain–is wider than the Sky,” is not well explained.
Aside from the fact that the tagline is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem and is therefore supposed to be–ahem–literary, my original idea for using that tag line was to write as a neuroscientist, a person who studies the brain.
I earned a PhD in Neuroscience in 1993 from Stanford University. Since then I have taken a circuitous ride through different jobs in science, including a postdoc at Caltech, a stint in the biotechnology industry, another role in academic project management, and am currently employed in science education and outreach. I teach with an educational non-profit called Science from Scientists, which was founded in the Boston area where I used to live, but has recently opened an office in the SF Bay area.
I discovered an interest in teaching when I had children and taught them in Sunday School and in Girl Scouts. I feel like hands-on science education is more play than work. It brings me back to why I wanted to become a scientist in the first place.
Up until now, though, that interest hasn’t been reflected very much in my blog. So I’m going to try to remedy that with an occasional series of posts on scientific or science education topics that I’ve taught recently, or just topics that interest me. Continue reading Chromosomal Ride
When I was 8, i didn’t find a wardrobe to Narnia.
When I was 11, my Hogwarts letter didn’t come.
When I was 12, my satyr didn’t show up to take me to Camp Half-Blood.
Gandalf, I‘m counting on you to take me on an adventure when I‘m 50!
Like many of us in “comfortable middle age,” Bilbo Baggins is described in the opening of The Hobbit as living happily in his cute little house in the Shire. He likes it there. He doesn’t want to go anywhere else. That could have fairly described my life here in Belmont, too. We’ve lived here in the Boston area since 1998, for almost 17 years. Both our kids were born here. We have jobs, go to school, have friends and hobbies. Our house in a quiet neighborhood, built in 1929, is a little
cluttered quaintly overstuffed. Cup of tea, anyone?
Then, several years ago, Google bought my husband’s employer. That took some of the financial pressure off, and in 2012 I retired from my job as a project manager in a neuroscience lab and began working part-time in science education. Now, in a reorganization, my husband’s job is moving to Google HQ in Mountain View CA. And we’re going with it. I have complicated feelings about this move, but one of the perks of being middle-aged is perspective; I can choose how to respond. This can be a loss for me, an occasion for regret, or it can be Gandalf’s knock on the door. Practically, I think this move has the potential to be a great opportunity for my science education career. One of the organizations that I teach with, Science from Scientists, opened an office in the SF Bay area last year. I’m now looking into a transfer of my own.
But I’m also thinking bigger, or at least more broadly. Before I came to Boston for my first real job after training, I lived in California for 10 years, first in the Bay Area when I was getting my PhD in Neuroscience at Stanford, and then in Pasadena when I was doing a postdoc at Caltech. It was a tumultuous time in many ways: a melting pot of decisions and relationships, many of them good, some of them not. I got engaged in California–more than once. I also owned my first car: a beige VW beetle. I skied, I swam, I climbed half-dome. I discovered the internet, and re-discovered the violin. I became a Unitarian-Universalist. When I left CA, back in 1997, I wondered if I would ever be back. Now I know.
Last weekend on the violinist.com website where I keep my violin blog, there was a poll: “Who is your musical role model?” The choices were: a teacher, a superstar, a fellow student, a colleague, or I have no role model. I had a hard time choosing between my violin teacher and a friend/colleague who passed away a few years ago. But, I went ahead and picked “a teacher,” which both then and today was narrowly the most popular choice, picked by ~40% of the respondents.
It no longer surprises me, but it still puzzles me, that “a superstar” comes in a close second. I have never really understood how superstars are supposed to work as role models: people one doesn’t know, probably will never know, and, unless one is uniquely gifted (I’m not), cannot reasonably hope to emulate. As a spectator or consumer, one can taste and enjoy what they bring to the world on special occasions, but my day-to-day life, at least, flows on without many ripples from superstardom.
Music is “just” a hobby for me though. I didn’t go to music school, and I don’t usually make money at music. I had industrial-strength performance anxiety until at least my mid-20s, and while it has gradually waned since then–after much effort to combat it on my part—it has never fully gone away. To me, performing on the violin, especially solo, is rather like eating quinoa, or like vigorous exercise. I know it’s good for me, and I’m always glad to have done it. But that’s only if you ask me after it’s over.
So maybe I just don’t get the appeal of the superstar role model on the violin because violin isn’t my passion and my everything. By profession, I am a PhD scientist and science educator. I care deeply about STEM education and about a scientifically literate public, and I want to see all students succeed, including students from diverse genders and cultural and economic backgrounds. So, what was my reaction when I saw this article this morning?
After reading and mentally processing the article, I am filled with admiration for this young woman. It’s a short article, but in it she appears to be gifted, hard-working, and humble. A woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, she has made the most of her opportunities, and she demonstrates an uncommon level of maturity and generosity. She’s clearly a superstar, and deserves admission to any top college in the country or in the world.
But my first reaction was still, “yikes!”
The yikes don’t have to do with this brilliant young woman herself, but rather specifically with the idea of her as a role model. Her principal calls her a “STEM superwoman.” Her guidance counselor is quoted as saying that the senior is “dedicated to pushing herself in the classroom . . . ‘she’s taking the hardest courses, the most challenging we offer’ . . .” And, her decision to apply to all 8 Ivy League schools is “not typically what we advise.” Some commenters say that we “need more” of students like this. Others want to know “how she did it.” Either way the implication is that others should read this article and emulate its subject. This superstar can be their role model.
Yet, I already know entire high schools worth of kids, kids from all different backgrounds and cultures, some privileged and some less so, who want, and who try, to be like the student described in this article. Who overload themselves with too many AP classes and too little sleep in order to gain that precious Ivy League acceptance. I have a teenager in one of these high schools now. Thirty or so years ago, I was one of them too (but back then the acceptance rate at my alma mater, Princeton University, was around 17%, not the 6.99% it was in 2015). There isn’t a shortage of teenagers trying as hard as they can, to be super. It’s just that most of them don’t succeed, at least not by this definition.
A few spaces in my Facebook feed down from the article about the Ivy League-bound student, I saw this one: Why kids who believe in something are happier and healthier. A little put off by the title at first, I read it anyway when a friend summarized the contents. The author, Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist, sees a lot of unhappy teens. She claims that over the past decade, up to 65% of teens have been shown to struggle with intrusive depression symptoms at some point, and often with anxiety and substance abuse as well. And this is especially a problem for the kids who should, theoretically, have the easiest chance for happiness: those who are economically well-off and whose parents provide them with opportunities and choices.
Her theory to explain this paradox is that “an increasingly narcissistic culture and the constant reward for achievement, whether on the playing field, the music stage or the math test, creates what I call in my book the unbalanced “performance self” of the child; a child who feels his or her worth is founded on ability and accomplishment.”
Her antidote to the unbalanced “performance self” is the development of the “spiritual self,” which she says is neglected in our culture. The spiritual self is not connected to any specific religion, or even to religion, per se. It is measured as a deep spiritual connection with a sense of a sacred world. It can be encouraged and fostered by steps such as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature, and modeled by such traits as caring for others, empathy, and optimism.
“In contrast to the performance self, the spiritual self is sturdy and resilient, happy at a win, but not dependent on it to feel worthy as a human being.”
Miller is writing generally here; this is her life’s work, and she has book coming out. But I couldn’t help but think specifically about music, the violin, and the role of the performance self vs. the spiritual self. Historically people came to music through the church, and music served a spiritual function, first and foremost. This is especially true for what we call “classical music” today, and for large parts of the violin, symphonic, and choral repertoire. Personally, its spiritual meaning is what drew me to this music, and is why I play the violin in the first place. Although I have been through several marked changes in religious and spiritual path along the way, the constant thread has been music. Music still makes me cry in embarrassing moments, mortifying my performance self.
It has actually taken me a long time to develop any kind of real performance self at all, and that which I do have is still fragile and easily injured. I regularly like to give the performance self a rest. Maybe it’s the introvert in me. I feel pretty content in this approach, at least for myself. But I still wonder, especially as I look at the suffering this imbalance between personal and performance selves seems to create in our culture, how music can help it heal.
I’ve been teaching middle school science for about 2 years now, in non-traditional settings. I sort of fell into teaching the age group after applying for a high school AP Biology tutoring position and finding out that they needed someone to teach the middle school ages instead (roughly ages 11-14). Since then, I’ve not looked back.
But it is a remarkable, and unexpected, place to find myself at this point in my life. Even when I made a conscious career change out of research administration and into K-12 teaching, I was expecting to teach high school. I wasn’t sure of the subject–biology or chemistry, or both–but it would high school, preferably Advanced Placement.
And when I was middle school age, I was not particularly enamored of school. (Actually, that’s an understatement.) Based on my experiences, I had written off middle school science as a waste not worth further exploration. It was my wonderful high school teacher, Mr. Webb, who had turned me on to biology. I was ahead in school, and two years younger than my peer group. They were going through puberty and I wasn’t. At least that’s a short, easy, believable explanation of what the problem was. But as I talk to adults now, I have yet to find one who really liked middle school and felt comfortable there. Even in my misery, which seemed so unique and poignant at the time, I wasn’t unusual. Reading about the subject of middle school education can be a little harrowing: this interesting article about middle schools quotes one teacher calling middle school “The Bermuda Triangle of Education.”
While I have to admit, I have had students both break-dancing in the corner and climbing under tables (not at the same time), I haven’t been as daunted as I feared, or as given to hyperbole, even in private moments. I think maybe the fact that I remember that time so well in my own life gives me a little window into what’s going on in that of my students.
It’s in that spirit that I’m approaching OWL training this weekend. In this case, OWL stands for “Our Whole Lives,” it is a sexuality and decision-making program created and run by the Unitarian-Universalist Association. I will be training to be a teacher of these classes at my UU church.
It’s a long way from science education in some ways, but not in others. My daughter went through it at our church a couple of years ago. I don’t if “enjoyed” is quite the right word for her experience, but I have seen her grow in maturity and thoughtfulness around all those issues. Parents aren’t allowed to teach their own children OWL, which is a good policy. I’m looking forward to being able to help the growth and maturation of other kids in the congregation.