I have wanted to be a scientist since before I can remember.
I did all the right things: I studied hard, finished my homework, raised my hand in class, failed to hide the fact that I loved learning, even though the other children teased me for it – and worse. (Those Hollywood movies about the cruelty of the American school system? It’s all true.) I didn’t care. I was going to become a scientist one day, even though no one in my family had ever earned a PhD, and even though I had never met any scientists, let alone a female one. I’d only encountered them on the page, in the novels I devoured, teetering-library-stackfuls at a time. These characters were heroic and colorful, leading the sort of exciting lives that seemed so far away from suburban existence in small-town Ohio.
I was going to be a scientist one day, even though I constantly received pushback: the well-meaning high school guidance counsellor who suggested that nursing might be more “appropriate”. The male senior researcher in a summer lab internship at the National Institutes of Health who sneered that women made terrible scientists, and convinced the boss to redirect me from experiments to photocopying journal articles for him. Years later as a postdoc, the lab heads who told me I wasn’t cut out for academia because I had outside interests in writing, public engagement and activism. I’m sure they thought they were being kind, doing me a favor. Tough love.
Every time I hit setbacks, or I was told I couldn’t do it, I tried harder. At university, when I couldn’t get a lab job, I got a part-time position scrubbing shit from mouse cages, just so I could wear a white coat and be closer to action. In senior year when I didn’t get into any of the biomedical research labs for my Honors project, I persuaded a new group leader to let me work on plant genetics. Even that NIH internship didn’t happen straightaway; the summer before I’d papered my CV all over the Bethesda campus, but the only job offer I received was in the Health and Safety department. I took it anyway (and had a blast, teaching myself C from Kernighan and Ritchie and doing all sorts of bizarre odd jobs with my newfound programming skills).
The very worst set-back of all was after such a promising start – a PhD from the University of Washington, a postdoc in a prestigious London lab and a group leader position in biotech – it all unravelled in just a few months. The biotech bubble burst, I was made redundant and was on the dole in Amsterdam. The few interview offers I did receive dried up after my unemployment was official, and I was forced to go into scientific publishing to put food on the table. I don’t regret this now, as I learned a tremendous amount during those times. I wrote novels, I started a freelance writing career that continues to this day, I helped launch new journals, I found out what I was made of. But at the time it was devastating, and for several years afterwards I suffered from depression and a complete lack of self-confidence. Being a scientist had become my identity; now that had been stripped away, what was left?
Of course you all know how the story ends. I made it back into academia eventually, even though it took years to find my true calling. Re-starting a scientific career with no prior line of research to build on, in a new discipline where you don’t know anyone and no one knows you, is a very lonely business. For me, the worst was the sensation of having been left behind. First it was seeing postdocs with whom I’d shared a lab become professors. Then it was PhD students I’d supervised. I knew I was swirling in the dust when the PhD student of a PhD student I’d supervised became a professor too. When I ran into such former colleagues at conferences, I always felt awkward and embarrassed, even though I was sure they weren’t aware of how lowly I felt, and wouldn’t have dreamt of judging me. To them, I was that interesting person who’d published novels and organized a memorable political demonstration. But inside, I was the failed scientist who didn’t even have a permanent position, who was surfing, hard and desperate, on a wave of rolling short-term contracts, who was kidding herself, who wasn’t doing justice to the second chance she’d been given. I even allowed myself to be bullied on several occasions because deep down, I thought I deserved it.
Fast forward to today, a full fifteen years after re-starting my academic career. It is only now that I finally feel like I belong, and deserve, to be running a lab. I lead with a light but steady hand, confident in my choices; I have a clear scientific vision; I am respected in my new field. I play a pivotal role in the university. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing – a shocking and protracted incidence of collegial abuse a few years ago nearly threw me back into that roiling surf. But I got through it, and kept my head above water, and now I know that such terrible things happen all the time, but the trick is not to let those incidents define you or undermine your confidence or sense of self. The perpetrators are to be pitied, not feared or hated, and one day they will undoubtedly reap what they sow. Meanwhile, it strengthens my resolve to never be the sort of person who seeks to advance themselves by treading on others; to break the cycle of abuse by refusing to be bitter or changed; to encourage my trainees to shine brightly, to become their best possible selves.
Earlier this month, I found out that my promotion bid had been successful, and that from October I will officially be known as Professor Rohn. After all the heartache, obstruction and deviation, it seems almost unbelievable. I think this is why it took me so long to process the information enough to write about it. Somewhere inside me, a young girl is still scrubbing rodent poo from hundreds of cages; as she walks the corridors on her way out, tired and back-sore, she is peering into the brightly lit labs to the left and right and wondering what it would feel like to belong to one of them. But the long-dreamt-of moment has finally arrived. I survived. I made it.
The other day, on a whim, I looked up the sneering senior scientist online and found that he’d vanished without a trace from PubMed within ten years of our encounter.
Yet I am still here. In fact, I’m only just getting started.