[Dear Readers: You wrote in, and we listened! For the next two weeks, we will be featuring a variety of pieces on “if you could change one part of your past…,” based on your suggestions. Want to participate? Just fill out this very short, nine-question survey and enjoy!]
I once wanted to be a scientist, a “real” scientist. When I was in high school, I had a fascination with biology but the disgusting dissections led me to be a vegetarian for twelve years. I struggled through physics. My teachers were so enamored with idea of a parallel universe that they barely had time for the one I was in to teach me anything.
It was the “magic” of chemistry that fueled my love for one of the “hard” sciences. I loved looking at the periodic table and trying to memorize it and it’s elements. I wanted to picture them all and impress people with that knowledge. There was something special about getting to wear lab coats and gloves and safety goggles like I would get dressed for biology or working on power tools. But there was something viscerally adventurous about handling dangerous chemicals that could kill you if they seeped into your skin and something magical about being able to control them with a few calculations and reactions.
My teacher was a squat, jolly man, an aging rosy-cheeked Texas country boy. Everyday he wore blue jeans, suspenders, and large plaid shirts. His white hair was slicked into a small pomade pompadour and he always wore black high top converse. He had such enthusiasm for the subject of chemistry that he glowed with constant discovery and flushed with thrill by mere discussion of the topic. He said that he loved teaching it so much that he kept trying to retire but he couldn’t stop himself from coming back for more. He reminded me of the character Tik-Tok from the haunting movie Return to Oz, minus the metal mustache.
His favorite exercise was to concoct chemical reactions that would change colors with the swiftness of wonder and we would have to try to figure out the formulas that created the reaction. “See, class?” He would say in awe of his own potion-making. I had the opportunity to take Honors Chemistry 2, but instead I opted to take a half day of college courses and skip out on the rest as a privileged graduating senior. I put all of this up to the folly of youth. Frankly, I was done with high school and ready for my next adventure, which would involve moving across the country to live in a city five times the size of my hometown, sight unseen. I had senioritis and wanted to take it easy as I had worked extremely hard for the first few years of high school in order to coast in the last semester.
In college, I pursued a path geared toward human rights by majoring in the “soft” science of Sociology. I could never really consider myself a “scientist” because it always seemed like so much to prove in the face of “real” science. I learned quickly that the social sciences are not taken as seriously as the natural sciences because of the supposed lack of rigor in exactitude and “objectivity”. Arguing these points would be a whole other piece, but suffice it to say that social sciences were never really considered seriously in the face of testable predictions, controlled experiments, quantifiable data and mathematical models. And my math skills were slightly above average, at best.
The closest I got to a promising future as a chemist was in library school. I was in awe of book and paper conservators. My first encounter with them was a tour of the preservation lab at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. There they were in a professional lab with solvents and vent hoods and paper presses treating books and paper with gentle hands and sewing together illuminated manuscripts. They had an aura around them that raised them above the rest of the information science rabble. Even the director had pink hair and wore leopard-print high heels; I felt like I had found my people.
During a summer semester of my rare books and manuscripts certification, I learned about the value of these books and about the time and care that went into healing them from previous abuses and preserving them for another 100 years. I wanted to be in that lab, working diligently on a singular and highly valuable project. I wanted to be able to look at the finished product and know that I had handled history and preserved it for future generations. But little did I realized that I was barely scratching the surface of that knowledge.
I quickly learned that conservation programs have prerequisites of advanced physics and chemistry as well as entomology. This would require a second master’s degrees after my Masters of Science of Library and Information Science (yes, we want to be scientists so much that we use it twice to identify our degree). The selection process for programs is extremely competitive and the training rigorous. I was afraid I didn’t have what to took to be a scientist of that kind, never mind the additional time for further classes or the money.
I imagine would my life would be like if I had followed the path that I discovered in high school, but I have not given up on the possibility that I could still do it if I choose. In truth, I’m hesitant because I’m still scared. I don’t know if I could ever be a true scientist. I don’t know if I could spend the money and time to move into an even further niche into my field, into something with so singular of a focus, with the possibility of failing at it or not being the best. I’m very happy in my current position and the variety of experience that has brought me to it. Perhaps, it could be a career change for me 10 years down the road. Perhaps.