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“Science is the single most useful pursuit that we have, in terms of trying to understand the blueprints around us. But at some point, the pier of science comes to an end and we’re standing at the end of that pier looking out onto uncharted waters that go for as far as the eye can see. Most of what we’re surrounded with is a mystery, and what one comes to understand in a life of science is the vastness of our ignorance.” ~ Dr. David Eagleman, PhD
Diary of an Angry Scientist (I).
I have a PhD and I studied viruses. I also happen to be an American. This means that nearly every new day of 2020 has presented challenges that few people were better prepared to understand than me and others like me. Although this essay is my personal perspective, I know I’m not alone in my frustration, sadness, and anger.
In an effort to vent constructively, I thought maybe it would be helpful to explain how these “piers” are built.
The Vastness of Our Ignorance
Thanks to the hysterical internet memes keeping my head above water these days, I’ve been reminded recently that a central character in many major disaster movies is a scientist who is being ignored.
Sound familiar? Except it wasn’t as funny this time.
Anyone aware of the attacks on Dr. Fauci (et al) can recognize the familiar plot, except this time no one had to shell out $12 to watch the drama unfold and, personally, I lost my appetite for popcorn.
Then last month, against my better judgment, I found myself participating in a social media conversation about a common SARS-CoV-2 conspiracy theory. Someone joked that she would like “I did my research” carved into her gravestone. Ha! And here I thought I went to school until I was 30 years old so that I could hang the evidence on the wall instead of waiting until I’m dead.
So much for that.
Then finally, while I watched my younger brother’s streaming thesis defense this week, my own humility was renewed by the specificity of his knowledge. We both studied biophysics, yet I could only understand about 20 percent of his material.
This is the nature of a PhD—to learn so much about something so specific that you are able to discover something that was previously unknown to anyone, adding your own little plank to the end of the pier and shrinking the size of the uncharted territory by just a smidge.
Who is a PhD?
Many things we take for granted in our daily lives, such as the staggeringly complex Smartphone on which you are likely reading this essay, were at some point in history inconceivable. Without need, desire, curiosity, and creativity, we wouldn’t even be able to flip a switch to turn on a light.
Scientists (many of whom have PhDs) are some of the most curious, creative, passionate people walking the earth, so mystified by the unknown that they sacrifice endlessly just to try to make the world better for everyone, somehow.
They often sacrifice their physical and mental health. They sacrifice their personal lives, precious time with family and friends, often delaying goals like parenthood because their thesis is their baby. They sacrifice holidays and weekends and drive in hideous weather, through hell and high water, to get to their work.
They study every waking moment—on the beach, in the car, at the dinner table, in their minds when they appear quiet and peaceful. They lose their sense of time and weather and fail to notice their own hunger pangs, the potholes in the road, and the random earthquake shaking the building. Oppressive anxiety, weight-loss, gray hairs, miscarriage.
All of it.
I was one of the few Americans in my entering PhD class for Molecular Biology, because the United States still leads the world in graduate education to the point that international students still want to learn here in spite of the fact that we make it difficult for them to stay (different essay for another time, I suppose).
I was also possibly one of two American women, because academic science is patriarchal and unforgiving to women in case you didn’t get that memo (another essay to write!).
I had no “fancy school” pedigree or cocky disposition to enter the room ahead of me. Pursuing a PhD was intimidating and my demographics made me feel isolated and inadequate.
But I was curious, creative, and passionate enough to do it anyway.
For six years, I failed a couple of tests but excelled on most, passed a competitive written qualifying exam slightly above average after living for eight days straight in the library, and passed an oral qualifying exam where I was asked to pronounce the name of a glucose analog containing 11 syllables.
I worked in the lab seven days a week for countless hours, fell asleep at my cluttered desk and cried at my bench, and got dizzy staring for hours through the eyepieces of microscopes inside and outside of a giant refrigerator. And I hate the cold.
I worked with headphones in my ears. If they weren’t blasting Italian Baroque concertos or gangster rap, then they were at least serving as everyone’s cue to leave me the f*ck alone.
I tried-failed-tried-failed-tried—and succeeded in my work just enough to keep me from becoming incapacitated by depression.
All on a barely survivable stipend provided by federal fellowships. Every. Single. Cent of which I earned.
I had friends who dropped out of the program or left early with a master’s degree. One classmate attempted suicide.
But I got through this. My achievements resulted in peer-reviewed publications that contributed new knowledge to my field—my own little planks on the hepatitis C virus pier.
And I still wasn’t done.
By the time I was truly ready to leave the lab in which I earned my degree, I found myself sitting in front of a computer with a few colleagues besides the most powerful X-ray beam in the north-eastern United States, at 3 o’clock in the morning, wearing a radiation exposure badge, having missed my period. I was pregnant…with an actual baby (don’t worry, she’s six and healthy and, of course, she loves science).
It was time to be done.
And in the end, it was a lonely and empty feeling, to understand something so deeply but be unable to describe it in basic, common, relatable language to the people you care about the most. Like solving a complex puzzle and being so ridiculously excited that you want to share it with everyone you know, but no one knows what a puzzle is.
Diary of an Angry Scientist (II).
Things that are difficult to see or difficult to understand are commonly feared.
There have always been vibrant chunks of the population who don’t trust science for one reason or another. We can never expect this to go away.
But whether it’s anti-vaccination, anti-climate change, anti-whatever, science denial is the opposite of progress and stems directly from the ego. It causes damage to us as individuals, to us as a human race, and to our entire planet.
The absence of understanding or fear of a complex idea can also lead to avoidance, denial/rejection, and even backlash or conspiracy theories.
Staring a global health crisis square in the eyes, with people dying by the hundreds of thousands, many feel that they have lost control of their lives. Many cannot comprehend a pandemic scenario and do not want to accept the changes required to save lives. Confusion and anger set in and the ego takes over.
Apparently anything that makes sense, even if it’s completely made up, may do as an acceptable explanation.
As I’m reviewing data, reading manuscripts, acting responsibly, and educating others on how to do the same, some are instead choosing panic or denial and seeking to place blame.
While doctors and scientists work around the world and around the clock to generate accurate data, waiting weeks and months to have credible work reviewed by other professionals and subsequently published, nonsense can be propagated at the speed of a mouse click.
Before you know it, we have been manipulated and turned against each other during a crisis when a united effort is the only defense we have.
My mind is blown. I am exhausted. And I am mad.
Bridging the Gap
I strongly prefer to be Switzerland. I’m a peace-keeping, low-key, nonconfrontational people-pleaser. It’s not that I don’t know when I’m right; it’s just that most of the time it doesn’t really matter, and it isn’t worth my energy to try to prove it.
If someone wants to convince themselves that the earth is flat, their ignorance isn’t directly going to hurt me.
A respiratory virus pandemic is not the same.
When my own health is at stake or possibly the health of my child, I don’t have the luxury of being Switzerland.
Regularly this year, I have had to avoid people I love and care about because they chose not to comply with emergency public health measures. I have had to say no and draw lines that may have caused me to be judged unfairly or perceived as exceedingly zealous.
I have argued with them about going back to work, walking down a crowded sidewalk unmasked, and visiting crowded public places. I have failed to persuade friends to quarantine themselves after traveling or after knowingly putting themselves at risk of exposure.
I have made personal decisions that bested the required state guidelines (thanking my lucky stars to live in New Jersey), while being unable to convince others that the minimum required of them wasn’t necessarily the best they could do. Or should do.
People, this is my jam! In a time when I can be a great resource to so many, I have instead been left frustrated and heartbroken.
In a pandemic involving a virus that is new to humans, the builders of the pier are building as fast as they can. They are trying to generate that basic foundation of knowledge at record speed. Our understanding is growing and evolving almost daily, and the severity of the situation can shift from week to week. This means that we all must be ready to continually shift our behavior to align with what we are learning.
It is okay to be going through constant change.
It is okay to admit that there is a better way to approach a problem than what we understood to be true yesterday.
It will be our ability to adapt and be open-minded, acting together as a community to help keep each other safe, that will prevail until we have vaccines.
We can and we must all do better than this. For our economy, for our schools, for our essential workers.
Please. Get. It. Together.