Wiping sweaty palms onto my jeans and taking a big breath to quiet the thunderous heart in my chest, I opened the door to meet him. It was an arranged marriage of sorts, like all relationships between Ph.D. advisors and graduate students. I even came with a dowry – a fellowship that would cover my stipend. Unbeknownst to either of us, it was perhaps the world’s worst pairing. In one corner, a highly conservative, right-leaning Christian with born-again tendencies. In the other corner, a liberal, left-leaning Jewish-born atheist – daughter of a Planned Parenthood board member.
So, there I am the very first graduate student in an empty lab. I don’t think either of us knew what to make of this new relationship at first. My new home was a hallway converted into a laboratory. It was like a galley kitchen with equipment spread out and not nearly enough counter space. Blinding fluorescent lights decorated the ceiling, and there was a faint smell of bleach. But, it was my new home, and I was going to learn to love it. This was the perfect beginning to an underdog story, and I always root for the underdog.
I bought a laptop, lab notebook, a few pens and sharpies, and pack of post-its. I put up an overly-pixelated print out of a Beastie Boys album cover to make it feel like home. I was settling in. I had already spent over two years in a lab doing research, so I knew my way around a pipette. Things were going well.
Tucked up at the bottom of my emotional backpack is a bizarre juxtaposition of the intense need for and complete immunity to male approval. My fingers writhe on the keyboard as I type those words, but it’s the reality of having your father abandon the family when you’re an eleven-year-old girl. If not him, then who? I was entering into my first meaningful hierarchical relationship with a man, and the pressure was palpable.
Then I made a very, very poor decision. I brought in a beloved set of magnets that I hid along the back-facing side of the incubator in our cell culture room. I had a feeling that the neural stem cells bathing in a hot pink bath of nutrients wouldn’t mind the culturally insensitive magnets on the other side of their wall, and the magnets were out of sight for any university staff that might have been offended. Since failure is a constant in scientific research, I would need that visual comedic relief.
Within the first week of this arranged half-decade marriage, I didn’t just cross the line; I rocketed through it. My new Ph.D. advisor, a highly conservative, religious man I was about to find out, did not care for the dress-up Jesus magnets adorning the brand new incubator. Even the fluffy pink slippers magnet couldn’t sway his wrath. There was a heated email exchange that resulted in my removing the magnets (the obvious right thing to do in retrospect). The sweaty palms returned, and my head felt like a puffed-up blowfish wondering if I was going to have to find a new lab.
To our credit, we managed to navigate a solid 4.5 years together, weaving through our perilous differences. I introduced him to my favorite pizza place in town, and we shared many lab lunches together, talking science and life over greasy pizza slices and Cokes. He tried out different facial hairstyles, and I mocked him relentlessly over miserable goatees or mustaches. I cut and dyed my hair every non-natural color in the rainbow, and he would tell me that I was unique…just like everyone else.
He reluctantly but willingly allowed me to explore a few “hobbies” along the way, like pursuing a Master’s in Science and Health Communication during the Ph.D. program and enrolling in gross anatomy because, well, cadavers. We found islands of agreement and cultural overlap. Despite my hatred of running, I woke up early in Ames, Iowa before a conference to do calisthenics and running drills on the university track with him. Relationships are about compromise after all. As long as we followed a wise adage about avoiding topics like sex, religion, and politics, we were just fine.
Then one day, four and a half years later, it was time to graduate and move on. I sought post-doc opportunities in labs that would make both of us proud. I moved 2000 miles away, and the long-distance relationship took its toll. No more pizza dates, no more jokes and jabs, only occasional photos to update each other on facial hairstyles or pink mohawks. We were just two people living a half-county apart, posting quips about all things meaningful and mundane on social media.
One day, after a hilarious failed attempt at distance running reminded me of him, I went to post on his Facebook page. Much to my surprise, instead of finding the button to post on his page, I was faced with the button to add him as a friend. Well, that’s strange, I thought. We’ve been Facebook friends for years. This must be a glitch. I refreshed the page. Add Eric as a friend. Closed the tab. Reopened Facebook. Add Eric as a friend. Shut down the whole damn browser. Add Eric as a friend. Restarted computer. Add Eric as a friend.
Unbelievable, he unfriended me! The ultimate middle finger of digital relationships.
So, I did what any irrational person who wants answers would do. I wrote Eric a private message. It turned out that my political and cultural leanings were a source of great sadness for him. In his final message of the exchange, he apologized for his lack of tact and suggested that we could still be friends if we came up with a modus vivendi. I never wrote back.
Admittedly, not the exact view we had after passing through four layers of security checkpoints to attend the Science Fair.
If you ever want to experience the feeling of being completely humbled and optimistic about the future, the White House Science Fair is the place to be. I was truly honored to have the privilege of walking around, talking to the students about their projects and breathing in all of the excitement and enthusiasm swirling around in the air. Of course, it didn’t hurt having the energy of science heroes like Bill Nye and Leland Melvin in the crowd. Here is a quick highlight video of the event.
Sneaking in a few pictures with heroes.
As part of the event, the President released the statement of commitments from institutions of all kinds, including his pledge of $240M for STEM education. Our invitation to the event was tied to our sponsorship of a program with the United Negro College Fund, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to engage students in maker activities. The program will include the first-ever Making for Change Showcase, which will highlight innovative solutions to community-based challenges.
At the heart of every project is the desire to solve a problem or improve upon a current solution. For students like Kenneth Shinozuka and Harry Paul, the challenge at hand was close to home with inventions solving issues these students faced in their own lives or the lives of family and friends. For others, the projects ranged from rockets and robotics to clean water, saving the bees, encouraging exercise and mitigating hiccups. Read more about each of the participants or watch the video (55min) of President Obama speaking with all of the amazing students.
SuperGirls! Junior FIRST Lego League Team from Daisy Girl Scouts’ troop 411 and their battery-powered page turner that could turn pages for people who are paralyzed or have arthritis.
Emily Bergenroth, Alicia Cutter, Karissa Cheng, Addy Oneal, and Emery Dodson, 6 (Tulsa, OK)
While there was certainly some mention of intellectual property and patents, I was elated to see an open source project from Mohammed Sayed and Kaitlin Reed (both 16 years-old) who used a 3D printer to transform Mohammed’s wheelchair into a cutting-edge piece of technology. I was able to catch Kaitlin for a few minutes and she was quick to highlight the fact that making the project open source allows for it to be accessible and affordable. Big high-five to these students and we look forward to visiting the NuVu program the next time we’re in the area!
Lilianna Zyszkowski exhibits her PillMinder prototypes
The familiar sight of open source hardware led me to Lilianna Zyszkowski, 14, of Norfolk, CT. Lily and I spoke for quite awhile about her various projects and how she used SparkFun hardware in her prototypes. Lili’s main project, the PillMinder, was created with a grandparent in mind. It uses capacitive touch sensors, LED lights and a networked microcontroller to remind people to take their medications on schedule. The device also alerts caregivers via Twitter and SMS whether the proper pills have been taken on time. As a Next Step Inventor with the Connecticut Invention Convention, Lili is also working with a Silicon Valley firm to bring the PillMinder technology to market.*
President Obama addresses the guests and exhibitors at the White House Science Fair
It was an honor to be in the ballroom for President Obama’s address. He was genuinely enthusiastic, charming and even tossed out a jab at Congress to support his budget for research funding. President Obama highlighted these students’ contributions to science and engineering while also emphasizing the importance of ensuring that there are laboratories and jobs for these students to pursue in the future. Admittedly, while I am biased in this regard, I dream of a day when science is a fully-supported bipartisan issue!
I even showed up on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Twitter feed!
The city of Longmont has opened its data collected around things like schools, crime maps and bike routes. I’ve had an idea for awhile now that I’d like to turn a Madsen cargo bicycle into a mobile version of a little free library. Like an ice cream truck, I would ride the bike through neighborhoods exciting children to borrow interesting books from the mini-library. Longmont is not a particularly large town, but I would put some thought into where I would ride the bike.
Goldieblox should be a total win for someone like me. I am a 32 year-old female with a doctorate in a scientific field. I grew up with a single mother who mercilessly coached me on growing up to be an independent and successful woman. I’ve been in plenty of those situations where you don’t see a lot of other females, like being the only little girl on a Little League tee ball team.