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Reflections on Summer Work To Date

Jessica Watkins's picture

My experience working with Professor Grobstein, Wil Franklin and my two Bryn Mawr colleagues, Kate Gould and Jenna Pfeiffer, has been nothing short of unique and satisfying.  It's a delightfully strange feeling to be sitting a mere floor above where my biology class met three times a week last semester; it's even stranger that I'm sitting here learning at my own pace, deciding what I find interesting and making connections between topics that I've never thought about before.

The most difficult part of my work has been explaining it to others.  It almost seems silly, lacking words to describe the job I love so much.  There are times throughout the work day when I wish I did lack words, like when I am trying to pair down a web paper and sort through the myriad connections I have made to topics discussed Tuesday and Friday mornings when we meet with our supervisors for an update.  But not being able to explain what I do every day?  That's just a little embarrassing.  I'm fairly certain that our group is the only one not working in some sort of lab this summer (ours is a "think lab," as we affectionately call it), and it shows.  Friends doing traditional "research" often look at me like I'm crazy when they hear about the "abstract, philosophical work having to do with science education" that I am doing.  My explanation of my work used to last for a solid minute in conversation; I've paired it down to a couple of sentences, and I'm getting better.  I think this is because I have begun to realize that, although I'm not making impressive discoveries in a room filled with chemicals, my work does matter.

My more "scientific" friends, as they like to think of themselves, smile politely when I tell them of my work and tell me I'm lucky that I'm not working too hard.  They are sadly mistaken--my work is not "easy" in any sense of the word.  Being my own "boss," directing myself throughout the day and deciding which projects are worth continuing, is one heck of a job.  It's easy to walk into a lab, be handed an assignment and sit down to complete it mindlessly.  It's much more difficult to walk into an office and plan out your own day, switching back and forth between ideas as you research in your own way and bring personal experience to whatever it is you're working on.  I constantly have to restrain myself from going off on every tangent that works its way into my research.  Consolidating my innumerable thoughts on life, the brain and everything in between is unbearable at times.  Do thoughts such as these even make a slight appearance in traditional research?  Is it possible to ponder philosophy and neuroscience while measuring out sulfuric acid and swirling beakers?  In a way, I am lucky.  The opportunity to think freely and make meaning out of chaos has presented itself to me, and I have accepted my mission as a "scientist" in the true sense of the word: one who seeks out answers with the intention of always building upon their knowledge.  "Blessed" is what I am; I am not required to produce concrete answers or churn out data points on a graph.  The thoughts in my head and the feelings in my gut are quite adequate for my job.

If I've learned anything so far it has been that, no matter what your interests are, they can always be put to use in the context of other fields.  Before coming to work in this group I was a little frightened of the voice inside of me telling me to pursue my interest in biology, even though I am intent on practicing law in the future.  I was even considering muffling this voice a bit by switching out the science classes in my schedule for more "law-friendly" political science courses.  Not doing so has been one of my best decisions.  Now I have come to accept the voice inside of me; I take its advice blindly and am not scared to do so.  This job has allowed me to build trust not only in myself, but in the parts of my mind that once whispered incoherently.  There are many ways to bring out your inner ambitions and acknowledge what really makes you happy.  Sometimes an inner microphone is all you need.