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Interconnected Relief- (And an interview with Summer!)

smilewithsh's picture


In the midst of the chaotic weather, stream of snowdays, piling work, and sickness, I started to notice that despite it all, I had a sense of calm within me. I started to think about what was different about this semester that had calmed by unnamed unsettling feeling that somehow remained somewhat constant throughout what seemed to be my college career. I was part of this Eco-Literacy 360 and this was also the first semester where I was not taking any lab science courses. I was (am) (maybe) Pre-Med, so I took Chemistry, Biology, Calculus, Physics and Organic Chemistry. Just typing those subjects out, actually filled me with a sense of dread. I did not find enjoyment in them. It would be a struggle to really engage myself in the material and actually find purpose behind why I actually wanted to learn that material. I declared to be an English major because my heart yearned for anything that could let me read, write, interpret, explore, engage, and discuss. It provided me relief when I would walk out of chemistry lab and into my film class. Or when I would come out of a PLI review session for physics and have pages of readings to do for Russian Folklore I would actually get excited. Stacy Alaimo says in Porous Bodies and Trans-Corporeality, “the claim that all bodies are porous is the claim that bodies are permeable….Bodies are more like sponges than marbles.”   So why did my science work feel like a form of dreaded torture? Why was I not the right kind of brand of sponge that could soak up all the chemistry? Even just thinking about going through that process now flashes me back to those sentiments and feelings, away from my relief and comfort zone. I most definitely was not porous with chemistry. Alaimo also says, “Entities flow through each other, influencing and modifying each other in all sorts of ways.” So it makes sense in a way, the entity of chemistry, lab work, NMR’s, molecules, compounds, mechanisms, etc would flow through me, and fill me with despair (I’m feeling a little dramatic) Yet, if you give me a novel, an article, a film, or a journal, and ask to me read, write, interpret, analyze, or stream of conscious, I will gladly do so and be stimulated, engaged, excited, and find relief and peace in being constructive in doing so. It’s an outlet for me in a sort of way. For me, the porosity and connectedness comes out in that way. That is the best way I can experience.

The aspect that intrigues me the most and that I wanted to explore in this essay was someone who finds that relief I have in the very same thing that gives me despair. A close friend of mine, Summer, is a chemistry major and does extensive research in the labs on campus. She sometimes spends up 10 hours a day in lab and does so willingly and joyfully. I decided to interview her to gain insight and perspective on her feelings with the subject and her lab work. With her permission, I recorded our conversation and I was amazed. I didn’t provide much context as to why I was asking her questions like “what do you consider your home?” or “how do you feel when you work in your lab?”, because I really wanted to see what her candid reactions and feelings would be and how she would choose to describe them. Also with her permission, I will be sharing what she said here on Serendip. Though I was just going to use bits and pieces of the interview initially, I actually think the whole conversation overall and how her thought process (and mine) developed through the course of it was very valuable and I wish to share it in its entirety.

One specific comment Summer made struck me. She said, “So being part of that lineage of looking through the world with this filter of not accepting the world by just what you see at face value. Expecting the sky to be blue but to look at it in a mathematical sense and describing that behavior.”  That idea really reminded me of Timothy Morton’s piece, The Ecological Thought, where he says, “a truly scientific attitude mean not believing everything you think.” (Morton, 16) It was great to an actual “scientific attitude” sitting right in front of me and truly expressing her love of “not accepting the world by just what you see at face value.”  Her experiences working in lab help her feel closer to the universe and tune out humanity. This idea that tuning out and seeking refuge is exactly what I personally experience when I am at home with my parents with their love and care, or when I’m lost in a good book, or when I’m engaged in a stimulating conversation, or when I’m writing this very piece right. This whole process of reading over material, having a discussion with Anne and brainstorming ideas, interviewing Summer, listening to the recording again, reflecting, analyzing, and somehow forming the jumbled-ness in my head into semi-coherent words and sentences, was my relief, my tuning out of “humanity”, my getting a little closer to the universe I’m so very much so a part of.  Listening to Summer provide me with her experience as a scientist, as a person who finds beauty in the lab work she does, seeing the excitement on her face when she describes a good day as being synonymous with  “beautiful NMR”, I can’t help but use my own framework and experiences to try to help me understand exactly her sentiments and feelings. Even now, I’m sitting here trying to use and interpret what she said during interviewing her, but what is even more so the valuable was the experience of interviewing her and the process itself that contributed to the framework of this essay.

As Summer so wonderfully puts it, that when she is in her lab, she “gets to have a conversation with the world”, I feel as if this assignment for me and the process I went about completing it provided me with that same opportunity. I explained to Summer what I was thinking about doing with all of this in the same excited tone she just used to talk about math equations and we made a common ground connection through the excitement of our respective disciplines. With that connection made, my whole mindset and frame of lens has shifted into this very holistic Eco-Lit approach on experiences, environment, connectedness, and home, it was at that point I realized this is what porous connectedness truly is!



Interview with Summer:


 What do you consider is your home?


Summer:  After I came to college my mother gave up the home I grew up in, and she’s a nomad now. And my dad has moved from place to place a lot too, so I don’t really have a home with my parents. But recently I’ve been thinking of my home as my lab, weirdly enough. I have my own space there. I can come in there whenever I want, I have the keys, I spend most of my time there.


How do you feel when you go into your lab?


Summer: I feel very comfortable, I know what to expect, I have things to do.


What does that freedom make you feel? What does it do for you?


Give me five words, that chemistry or your lab do for you?


Summer: Purpose, Enjoyment, Stress, Responsibility, Fulfillment. 



Humanities, for example, provides me a relief. For me, home is also a feeling that I equate with relief. Can you relate that to your experiences?


Summer: I never really have to think about it. I just do it. I feel like by like having this opportunity to research and have my own space is a show of faith in my capabilities by the research department and advisor. Before I came to college, school was just something you did and it never really meant anything until now because I’m doing work that I’m excited about. Every time I’m in my lab, not only am I working towards something that I would be happy doing on day, but I find enjoyment being there.


It’s very monotonous, but it’s meditative. The work I’m doing.  I can focus on exactly what’s going on in front of me, and I can tune out everything else that’s going on with me, the stress I’m having with friends, and I can just do that, do my science.


Meditative space? What created it for you?


I definitely feel like it’s an integral part of me. My home life is very disjointed, I don’t talk to my family members that much. So when I need to be reassured or feel at peace, I go to lab and do something that I know will be easy and work.


I feel like I get to have a conversation with the world, rather than my parents.


I get to be doing something that no ones ever done and I see how silly my problems are.


I love learning about my physical world, I don’t understand people that well, but I can understand what people have thought about the world.


How do people connect with the world differently?


I think to a certain extent people just like love different things about the world. Have different attractions. I would say that at the surface, a lot of science, can seem cold and mechanic. You learn an equation and plug some numbers in and stuff comes out. It doesn’t mean anything. And why should you feel a certain way about a compound.


Feeling of connection to the physical science? This idea of interconnectedness and porosity?


Summer:  When you first start learning about sciences, you are just given equations. PV =NRT. You just trust it to be true. Even if its not applicable everywhere. But the further you delve into the subject, the more you learn that this didn’t come from no where. people didn’t just come across it from no where. They looked at a pattern of behavior, and then they took math and somehow made this connection between something they had seen in math to some behavior they had seen in the physical world. So being part of that lineage of looking through the world with this filter of not accepting the world by just what you see at face value. Expecting the sky to be blue but to look at it in a mathetical sense and describing that behavior. 


It’s just awesome!


I just think it’s beautiful. The math is beautiful. I know that most people think of beauty as a picture on a wall or a poem. I think of an equation that someone found. They don’t know why it works, they can’t explain to you why it’s true and there’s no reason for it to be true, but it IS! It does describe behavior that you see and it matches evidence.  I think that’s the real interesting part, it’s beautiful. It’s kind of how I see, not that I believe in a higher power, but I can see the plan behind the universe almost.  I can see what other people feel about God, that is sort of what I feel about our ability to look into the world and to describe and to make predictions.


Is this the means that speaks to you the most? What do you consider to be your environment?


Summer: The environment reminds of wild places, places free of human impact.

Me, my environment, the natural beauty of the world. I love nature, I honestly think the world would be at its most beautiful without people in it.


We’re all here to understand nature. We do things in labs that wouldn’t happen “naturally” but it’s all to understand what the natural rule of the universe is. To get an insight into the real universe.


You talked a lot about how you feel about the lab and equations. Making sense of the world in a systemic world.


Summer: I think a lot of times things get manipulated.


Aren’t we part of the environment?


Summer: We are doing a terrible job of taking care of it. Apparently in the bible it says we have dominion over the either, so we can do whatever we want. But our job is to protect and preserve it. More so than to understand it.   There are way too many people.


Reading the world, vs. reading the word? Do you think you have the means to express the way you feel?


Summer: I’m not good at verbalizing what goes on in my head. Most of the time, because I don’t think of how to communicate. I just have experiences. I feel like some people have a huge talent for communication and they can get things across, but I’m so bad at that. I think that’s why I love science. No one can misunderstand an equation.


So does that automatically assume that everyone’s experience with that equation will be the same?


Summer:  I think they’d have a different impact on us. What would come of it would be exactly the same. 


The whole idea behind the scientific method is that everything is reproducible. Our own perceptions shouldn’t matter. We try to get to a place beyond perception. A cold hard fact, is gonna be seen the same way. It’s a goal, I don’t know if we will ever get there though.   I’m gonna have different thoughts and concerns about their experimental procedure.


I feel like there’s a lot less room for us to have the ego involved as scientists. 


Do you think experiences can be reproducible?


Summer: There are too many variables. People are hugely complex. We haven’t even scratched the surface of human biology. Consciousness is tricky. Atoms can have the same experience, but not people. 


What does science do most for you?


Summer: I get to tune out humanity for a while and feel closer to the universe. It’s not an isolating experience, a lot of people think it’s lonely but it’s really not. 









Anne Dalke's picture

reviewing your semester's work

here are my notes from our writing conference today.

We reviewed all your written work. You described your first paper, defining home, as “exciting” for you to write, because you’d never been asked to address this question before, in an academic setting.  Yet you were also hesitant about “going public” with such writing; it “scared you a little, to be out in the open.” You described this as a “back-and-forth” for you throughout the whole semester: making your work public ran counter to your upbringing, which cautioned you to “think twice” before you speak, to ask if what you have to say is “necessary,” too “excessive,” not “needed.” “Will speaking do harm?” If you are angry, calm down: “If you are standing, sit down; if you are sitting, lie down….”  We talked, too, about the ways in which anger can fuel social justice, about the times when silence is not beneficial…

You reported really, really enjoying writing your second paper (to which these comments are attached): this was the interview with Summer, who “loved all that made you cringe.” Documenting your conversation about her “spiritual home” in Park “made ideas shoot around in your head,” and you thought that this interview anticipated (and I thought actually contributed to the design of) the story slam; as a follow-up, you have interviewed someone for whom Bryn Mawr was, but is no longer, a home…

Writing your third paper (which was not posted on Serendip), you had “finally hit a point,” were “just tired and angry, and didn’t want to do anything….”

I described your work overall as a series of strong stories…and also described my desire that your final project be less of a story, more analytical; less personal, more text-based. We agreed that, this time ‘round, you will look at a series of different passages in the novel that invite and highlight the possibility of multiple interpretations (“I’m watching Ghosh creating Piya’s interpretion of Fokir…doing what??”) Your topic is all the ambiguities in The Hungry Tide—the ways in which Ghosh invites multiple readings  of various scenes (and so, perhaps, calls attention to the “danger of a single story”?). You described reading, in this context, as a “process of unending interpretation.” I suggested that you review the concept of reader response theory, which emphasizes the multiplicity of interpretations generated by the engagement of different readers.

I look forward to seeing where this exploration takes you!


Anne Dalke's picture

“tuning out humanity”


Last month, I asked you what your relief was from-- and, more largely, how you understood the nature of the world, for which home is needed relief. You are responding to those questions here by doing something quite striking, I think: interviewing a friend whose home is the lab space you have fled, who finds there the sort of relief you have found in the humanities. It’s a porous way to go: to look for home in the place you have left, and to try and understand why it works for some one else. A very capacious orientation!

I agree that Summer’s story is a compelling one. Her account of the lab is of a place that is “very monotonous, but meditative,” where she can “focus on exactly what’s going on in front of her, and tune out everything else,” where she “gets to have a conversation with the world,” placing herself in that lineage of scientists who don’t “accept the world by just what they see at face value,” but can “see the plan behind the universe,” describe it and “make predictions.” They are “doing things in labs that wouldn’t happen ‘naturally,’ to understand what the natural rule of the universe is. To get an insight into the real universe.”

What’s most compelling for me in her account are its spiritual dimensions. She says that “when she needs to be reassured or feel at peace, she goes to lab and does something that she knows will be easy and work”; that scientists “try to get to a place beyond perception,” beyond the ego.” “I don’t think of how to communicate. I just have experiences… why I love science. No one can misunderstand an equation.”

Shivering along with you @ the power of this story, I can understand why the “experience” of having this conversation seems “more valuable” to you than interpreting or using it. But as you yourself said in class this week, learning to move from experience, through translation, to interpretation, can be a way of getting some distance, and some added insight, on what has happened. So I’d like to nudge you to step back now and think some more about what you have learned, more generally, about what constitutes home (for Summer, too, as for you, it’s “relief,” a place of retreat and calm). Reading “as” another critic, reading Summer’s story “through” another lens-- what’s home leave out?  Summer speaks several times, for instance, of “tuning out humanity”—quite a jarring description of what home might be, yes? --as in, “I get to tune out humanity for a while and feel closer to the universe. It’s not an isolating experience.”

Say more!