Am I Science? Yes, #IamScience

Compared to the other stories posting via this meme, I feel almost traditional.

I do not remember a time when science was not part of my life. I recall fondly reading and re-reading All About Dinosaurs. I had a tiny kit containing most of the minerals in Moh's scale. Mom refused to complete my set with her jewelry, so I had to imagine the upper levels of hardness. Biology clearly won my heart, though. How things could be alive fascinated me to no end.

Unlike many scientists, I was not the outdoorsy type. I read fashion magazines, did a bit of modeling, and entered some teen-queen pageants. I often joke that a hotel without 24-hour room service is my idea of camping. I love air conditioning and indoor plumbing; I fail to see how doing without these conveniences constitutes "fun." This quirk effectively ruled-out a career in paleontology or biological field work. I do love people. Having a father in academia, and coming of age during the 1970's PhD glut, teachers suggested aiming for an MD which guaranteed employment.

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Admission to medical school was fiercely competitive in that era, and I aimed my sights on a relatively new program at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. The medical curriculum began on day 1 out of high school and went 11 months each year for 6 years. Getting in meant avoiding the cut-throat competition among pre-med students on many campus. Its goal when pitched to the legislature was producing primary care physicians for under-served areas of Missouri, not academic physician-scientists. My second year there, I got a work-study job as a lab assistant for a fresh-out-of-post-doc carcinogenesis researcher needing cheap labor. This year provided my first experience with real science as I worked with the doctoral student and another lab to set up our efforts. Everyone, including this 19-year-old part-timer, needed to generate data. I learned to do short-term lymphocyte cultures, murine surgery, and a number of assays. The principal investigators of these labs strongly suggested that I figure out a way to pick up a PhD to go with my MD, since I loved the science so much.

The next few years brought more intensive courses and clinical work with overnight call, making meaningful lab time improbable if not impossible. I love science, but another kind of love intervened, along with a big princess wedding. By the time I graduated with my BA and MD, the idea of getting another advanced degree sounded exhausting and unnecessary. I headed off to pediatric residency with the intention of becoming a hematologist-oncologist, building on my background in carcinogenesis. Of course, I met a whole bunch of nephrologists and their patients who convinced me to take my talents elsewhere. After all, urine is golden!

My first 6 months of fellowship were a gray blur. Post-partum depression plus a prolonged period of call without a break left me feeling bleak. January in Minnesota is not exactly rosy, but I entered a lab and felt alive again. More than 100 patients with diabetes of various stages had kidney biopsy material stored for study. I began to ask questions about diabetic kidney disease, learning to do electron microscopy along the way. I published papers, completed my training, and landed a faculty position. National funding followed, along with a better position in Omaha, a great place to live and raise our offspring.

Eventually, my science hit the wall. One project just would not work, no matter what we tried. Another project got shot down by reviewer 3 at the same time the NIH budget tanked. I realized that I could not write a better grant than what I had submitted. The probability of getting the funding expected at my professional level was incredibly close to zero. Even efforts with smaller agencies to get funding for pilot data failed, as these foundations cut back support to established investigators during the recession.

The kids left the nest, and my hubby had an amazing job offer in a warmer town. We moved on last year, and I am turning my problem solving skills back to the clinic and to research in faculty development. I still have a grad student back in Nebraska (who is proving reviewer 3 wrong; take that!), and I love the chance to talk science on a regular basis. I do not miss the grant pressure or knowing that several other people will be out of a job if I fail.

Am I still science? When I see a patient, I gather data through a history and physical exam. I create a hypothesis as to what I believe is wrong, and I test that diagnosis through laboratory studies or treatment. If I am wrong, I go back, readjust my hypothetical diagnosis, and test again. Sounds like the scientific method to me.

I may not have a full-time lab. I may not be a funded PI. I still believe that I am science - with incredible fashion sense, of course.

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