Nearly a decade ago, I was a 16-year-old supposedly gifted kid attending a public boarding school for the supposedly gifted, and I had one problem: I was good at everything, and I had no idea what to do with my life.

Granted, this is, at least in theory, a great problem to have. I won awards in biology and chemistry, I had been reading and writing far above grade level for as long as I could remember, and I just generally loved to learn. But I had no idea what to do with any of it. The way I saw it, I was great in the classroom, but didn’t have any real meaningful skills, or any direction. I was starting to lean towards science because it seemed more practical than my more humanities-oriented interests, but I had no exposure to what doing science as a career was really like.

Enter, thanks to my well-connected AP biology teacher, a man named Dr. David Sands, who ran a 3-week summer program at Montana State University designed to introduce high school students to biology lab work.  I was lucky to earn both a place in his program for the summer between my junior and senior years, and enough scholarship money to mostly defray the costs.  Those three weeks quite frankly blew my mind, and certainly helped to set me on a path towards the graduate degree in biology I’m now in the process of earning.  But actually, the transformation began before I even got on the plane. Because, you see, Dr. Sands had sent us a reading list.

I don’t understand how, by the age of 16, this voracious reader and learner had yet to really delve into the world of popular science non-fiction books, but I hadn’t. Dr. Sands’ “suggested” reading list was like a treasure trove, and I dove right in.  One book in particular etched itself into my memory: Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chaptersby Matt Ridley. Once I had that book in my hands, it was all over.

Cover illustration of Genome

Written in the heyday of the Human Genome Project, the book was written to explain and celebrate the vast new knowledge at the fingertips of humanity for the first time: our own genetic code. I knew about the project, of course, but Matt Ridley brought to life for me what it meant. I realized for the first time that I was living at the edge of a new scientific frontier, and that maybe if I worked really hard, I could be a part of it.

Today, Genome is rather outdated, and I’ve since discovered scores of other science writers to admire (I’ll get a blogroll up soon). But as I attempt to begin my own small contribution to the world of science writing, I’m going to return to my roots in a way, by re-reading a book that had such a huge hand in getting me here. In the mean time, I’ll be writing about other things, but as I come across interesting tidbits I may share them here.

For now, I’m going to leave you with a tiny excerpt from the book–a metaphor that has never left my mind since:

The fuel on which science runs is ignorance. Science is like a hungry furnace that must be fed logs from the forests of ignorance that surround us. In the process, the clearing we call knowledge expands, but the more it expands, the longer its perimeter and the more ignorance comes into view.  Before the discovery of the genome, we did not know there was a document at the heart of every cell three million letters long of whose content we knew nothing. Now, having read parts of that book, we are aware of myriad new mysteries.

The theme of this chapter is mystery. A true scientist is bored by knowledge; it is the assault on ignorance that motivates him–the mysteries that previous discoveries have revealed. The forest is more interesting than the clearing.

Now seriously, what insatiably curious 16-year-old could read that and then NOT want to get in on expanding the clearing?  Not this one, certainly.

P.S. Were there any books in your childhood/young adulthood that similarly shaped your career? If so, please share in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Inspiration

  1. Hi Keely!

    I stumbled upon your post and it really resonated with me. I too had that feeling of mild bewilderment in high school. I really liked and did well in history, writing, biology, international relations, and chemistry. I felt jealous of people who had a clear area of strength because I thought they had a straightforward path to follow.

    I quickly realized that that thinking was naive, and everyone has their own struggles in defining their career trajectory. But I like that you linked your thoughts to ‘Genome’ — which is such a great book! If you’re looking for more science reading, I’d recommend ‘Complexity: A Guided Tour’ by Melanie Mitchell any anything by Mary Roach.

  2. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! I’ll have to check out Complexity, but I’m already a Mary Roach fan. 🙂

    I’m still figuring out the career path thing myself… taking a hard turn out of my PhD program leaving with a master’s and heading off to…as of yet, largely undefined things. Short term goal being support myself for a year while I make plans and read and write a lot.

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