A post recently popped up on my facebook feed of a fantastic photo shoot a mum had taken of her daughter’s softball team. The girls wore both pretty dresses, and their trainer. They wore crowns, and war paint, high heels and catcher’s mits, they were both ‘pretty’ and ‘sporty’. The idea of the shoot- why can’t girls be beautiful and like sports?
This idea of each of us being ‘one true thing’ in life can sometimes be inspiring, when we see a dancer so dedicated they get through three pairs of point shoes a day or an environmentalist who lives in the wild, eating nothing but insects! But the truth is most of us don’t fit into one box nicely, we are far too complex for that!
When I think back to things that could have stopped me going into STEM, and the thing that still makes me feel like an imposter, this idea of ‘you can only be one thing’ is probably the biggest barrier.
I was very lucky in that I went to an all-girls high school, so the idea of male/female subjects was unheard of, they were just subjects. However, the idea that you were either sporty OR smart OR artistic was rife. I was sporty when I started high school. I was a gymnast, who competed in the national team, I went on training camps and excelled at PE. That was until I quit the sport due to health issues, and suddenly I didn’t excel at anything. I was average or as the saying goes ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. I wasn’t needy enough to require extra help, not intelligent enough to receive accolade, so I just sort of existed in the middle- ‘master of none’.
If you had asked me then, in high school who of my peers would most likely be working in STEM, I probably would have pointed to those at the ‘top of the class’, because that is what we are conditioned to think, to follow a path, you have to be the best. The best at that, and nothing else. If you aren’t a math genius, don’t bother with physics. If you can’t label all the parts of the plant off by heart, don’t bother with biology, if you aren’t ‘academic’ you won’t survive in science.
Yet all of this is a lie because none of us are one dimensional. That girl I would have pointed to as most likely to end up in STEM? She went to do Physics at university, but now is a lighting designer for theatres. And me? The ex-sporty ‘master of none’, I’m completing a PhD in Biomedical Physics and last month gave a keynote talk at a surgical conference!
Labcoat and barbell
But even now, I look at those around me and think ‘look at him, he is a real physicist. I’m not as good as him, because he has the brain for maths’. And I forget that the reason I have got where I am now is precisely because I am a jack of all trades.
An enjoyment of drama taught me how to speak and captivate an audience. Literature and books taught me to write. Exercise and Sport gave me an appreciation for the very physiology I am investigation and art helped me to be able to draw my own schematics for my research.
More than this, with science and academia being a very stressful environment to work in, those other parts of ‘you’, allow you to thrive in life and in work. They give you ways to let off steam, socialise and be mentally and physically healthy. I work with a physicist who runs marathons, a biologist who knits, an engineer who bakes like Mary Berry and a chemist who cycles. And me? Well, if I was to star today in a photoshoot like the softball girls, I would be wearing a lab coat and safety goggles, while lifting a 150kg+ barbell. The only thing getting me through the mind-numbing pain of writing my doctoral thesis is training for a strong woman competition!
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Fancy something else? Read about the Eastern gorilla in the Endangered Species series!