In my freshman year of college, with only a week to go before classes started, I changed my major from undeclared to biological sciences. I had convinced myself during the summer that I wanted to become a medical doctor, and I thought that a biology degree was a requirement. Science was a means to an end for me, and it would have been inconceivable to me back then to think that my interest in it would persist when the desire to go to medical school had faded.
But that’s precisely what happened.
For the unprepared like me, our biology courses were organized at a furious pace, but when time allowed it was still easy to be impressed by that sense of wonder and fascination that probably comes over many new initiates of science. For biology in particular, it was an introduction into a world that was utterly bizarre and alien when compared to everyday life, more so than even the science fiction that took up my imagination as a child.
The basic cell structure that had been expounded to us since middle school took on incredible permutations to fill the multitude of functions that life requires. In that microscopic world, protein conveyer belts shuffled along microtubule wires, and proteins self assembled to weave nucleic acids and proteins. Skirmishes between bodily invaders and defenders were characterized by a perpetual arms race. Enemies sometimes ate or destroyed each other and afterwards wore their entrails for others to see or used them as cloaks to masquerade as native citizens.
Yet, as interesting as all of these things were, my curiosity didn’t reach its peak until I took a course in introductory neuroscience. I had taken psychology courses before this and although some of the material overlapped, there was something about viewing it all from a biological perspective that aroused my interest in a way that psychology alone never did.
I was especially interested in the areas that dealt with learning and memory, because the idea that physical and chemical interactions could somehow lead to sentience and thought seemed incredible to me. I was excited, and before the end of the course I had applied for and obtained a position as an undergraduate researcher in a learning and memory lab on campus.
I came under the mentorship of Norman Weinberger at the University of California, Irvine, whose research dealt with behavioral learning and memory and the auditory cortex. During the three years that I was in his lab, I worked on projects that examined the relationship between behavior and learning, including the structures and mechanisms that might be involved.
Laboratory research was a backstage pass into the scientific process, and it dispelled the misconceptions that had accumulated through years of textbook science. The incessant troubleshooting and refinement of procedures and the need to develop protocols from scratch impressed upon me the amount of work that goes into any one line of stated fact in any science textbook.
Science, I found out, was difficult, and never as neat as the textbooks would have you believe, but it was also rewarding. I observed behavioral phenomenon like operant conditioning, sensitization, and habituation, and witnessed firsthand the proof of cortical expansion that were a result of learning experiments that I had performed.
But perhaps the singular most important effect that being in a laboratory had on me was that it placed me in an environment that was inductive to learning and encouraged critical thinking, amidst patient and extremely intelligent people who did science for a living.
My three years in laboratory research culminated in my participation in the Excellence in Research program at my university. The program gives undergraduate researchers an opportunity to showcase their research and present their results in a professional setting. Participants were required to write a paper on their topic of research, create a scientific poster, and give a talk in front of their peers and a senior faculty member.
My research examined the relationship between behavioral learning and cortical expansion in the auditory cortex, and presented evidence for how the positive correlation might serve as a memory code for behavioral relevance. Upon successful completion of the three month program, participants were recognized with honors at graduation.
Despite my genuine interest in the biology courses, at times it felt like we were being hailed by a barrage of information, overwhelmed by what at my more pessimistic moments seemed like an endless cycle of memorization and regurgitation. To counter this, I enrolled in courses in the humanities and social sciences. For me, it was pure escapism, an outlet for that other part of me that revels in discourse and the efficacy of the written word to captivate and move. I looked for classes that required expository writing, and was grateful for the chance to exercise and develop skills that were rarely used in my biology courses.
These two seemingly disparate interests of science and writing came together in an unexpected way when I took a course on the history of neuroscience. The course examined major discoveries as well as misconceptions of the past. An emphasis was placed on context, and theories that would seem outlandish today – such as the idea of a fused network of brain cells – became plausible, natural conclusions even, in light of the available evidence.
At the end of the course, we were given the option of taking a written test or turning in a paper on a topic of our choosing. I chose the paper, and wrote mine on a 19th century Norwegian named Fridtjof Nansen who was fascinating to me because he was an embodiment of ironies. Nansen was an artic explorer, a sportsman, a statesmen and a humanitarian who also made major contributions to neuroscience. He eventually won a Nobel Prize, but not in medicine, but for peace, and his work in neuroscience was soon overshadowed and relegated to the footnotes of science history. I later submitted the paper in for the Gerard Award for Excellence in the History of Neuroscience, and was awarded a joint first prize, becoming the first undergraduate in the history of the award to do so.
During my discoveries about myself and about science, I came to realize that science writing was far more satisfying to me than my daily concentration on science itself. In particular, I found that while I was a competent laboratory researcher, I did not crave a career as a laboratory scientist but most enjoyed communicating science to others through writing. Science writing is a profession that seems tailored to my interest and needs and integrates what I once considered to be unrelated fields. It is a profession that requires both curiosity and ingenuity, one in which it is essential that its practitioners be capable of getting as excited over an elegant experiment as a well crafted sentence.
For me, writing and science are both interests that have proven to be long lasting and genuine. I would not be able to choose which one I liked more, and I look forward to being in a profession in which I will not have to make that choice.