When I was in college I worked in a microbiology research lab under a woman who a friend of mine has credited with running several of her good friends out of the field. We worked with a beautiful alga with all manner of poetic overtones and I loved the lab meetings, sitting around in a well furnished boardroom (far more beautiful than anything I’ve every encountered in the world of K-12 education) discussing papers with complex language that rolled off the tongue like an Olympic gymnast and at the same time actually said something beautifully specific. And the ideas, the ideas were marvelous, breath-taking and intriguing and full of all sorts of fascinating possibility (the absolute inverse of meetings I now attend in which we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make sure that everyone is thinking about the same idea as often as possible).
The trouble was that I was a miserable actual lab tech, possibly worth less than what they paid me. (Which was nothing. I was volunteering.) I was never sure if the solutions I made ever matched the molar specifications to which I made them, I cultured random bacteria with flying success when I was supposed to culture Acetabularia and, to make things more complicated, I was basically terrified to ask anyone for help for fear they discover that, while I could talk a nice game, my technical skills were nil.
Within a year, I disappeared from my volunteer position and was teaching ten-year-olds how to make polymer slime and what all the parts of a cell (via wild pantomime and metaphor).
I bring all this up because I was watching a piece of a PBS show on grad students (Yes, what does it say that while I wasn’t willing to be one, I will intentionally watch them. With pleasure.) trying to determine the function of a particular metabolic protein. And yes, it’s really cool. At one point, the show broke out to a little mini-interview in which one of the PhDs waxed poetic about Art and Science. How art and science both share the fringes of society because they are, in their purest forms, about passion and single-minded focus, about the beauty of new ideas and deep understanding of the amount of work it truly takes to unearth them. In a more practical moment, he might have also compared the lack of monetary compensation but I think that kind of practicality was beneath him.
I was struck instantly by the truth of what he said, that the parallels between pure science – research science – and writing (or any other art, for that matter) are legion. And then fear crept in. If I didn’t have the staying power for science, what makes me think I can travel the equally difficult trail of writing? Will I, at some point meet my Dina Mandoli of writing? Or just get stuck in the culturing step, ending up with more stinky bacteria than elegant green wine glasses?
Or perhaps I’ve grown up a little. At least a little more stubborn and am now willing to risk my own damned pride to further the science of my art.
As always, there’s only one way to know and that’s to test it.