Stories we tell strangers

We have these tidy, polished narratives we tell. We tell them to ourselves to rationalize, to justify, to remind us of why we’re here, why we’re enduring. We tell them to others to convince them of our investment, our devotion, our clarity of mind. We file down and polish away the imperfections that don’t serve whatever purpose we’re working toward now. They’re the stories we tell, the stories we’re told to tell, even when our minds are anything but clear, certain, committed.

Then there are the other stories. They’re messy, honest. They’re the stories of living, failing, getting lost, finding our way, loving, hurting, giving our all to discover it’s not enough. They’re the experiences we bury and try to ignore. They’re the secrets we whisper into the dark.

But sometimes we need something more than the darkness can offer. So we tell these stories to strangers.

And there are places for us to share. Basements and rooms of anonymous souls. Seats at the bar or on the train by someone many orbits outside our professional and personal lives. Stages before crowds assembled to hear “human” stories but where we can’t (or don’t have to) focus on a single face. The ether of the internet where we can put forth words without interruption… and then either watch the response or close the window and not revisit it again.

This week, I listened as a panel of 4 accomplished women shared stories of their mistakes and failings with a room of 100+ people. Asked what it was like to share such stories, one of them (Renee Erickson) said it was “terrifying.” Sharing stories of when we failed, or think we failed, are indeed frightening. What if no one gets it? What if I really am the screw-up I imagine myself to be? What if… what if… It’s a little easier with some cover of anonymity or pseudonymity. I imagine it must be a bit easier when you have some accomplishments and accolades between you and that time of your life.

Responding to the same question, another woman (Trish Millines Dziko) said, “Telling a room that is 99.9% strangers is… freeing.” And that is also true. We need someone to hear (or read), to bear witness. We need someone to know our experience of that moment. Perhaps we just need some reaction, any reaction, from someone who’s not entangled in our story.

These stories can lend authenticity to the people we are—or the personas we present—in the world.

Most of all, I think we need others to know they’re not alone. And in doing so, we hope to find that we are not alone.

I can’t help but think what beauty and wonder we might achieve if we could tell these stories more freely to friends and colleagues, to those who are now or one day might be part of our circles.

But for now, and for some time to come, these are stories we save for strangers.


Marquita Qualls (@DrQualls) recently invited me to have a STEMulating Conversation, and at the end, we touched on the value and rationale of sharing personal stories. You can listen to a bit of my story here:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

2018: a year of building

It’s funny… As my life becomes more frenetic, I’ve found myself more consistently making time in the early morning to catch up on my RSS feeds.

This morning, I saw Megan Poorman’s post about setting a theme for the year, instead of writing resolutions. She writes:

Having a theme for the year is almost like setting a mantra. It serves as a guiding principle when making decisions and reflecting on events. Setting a theme removes the daily pressure of measuring yourself against something you wish you were and encourages a holistic approach to self-awareness.

Megan’s themes are short, action states. For instance, her them for 2018 is “Take ownership.”

But the idea of a theme also called to mind a TED Talk by Shonda Rhimes on her “year of saying yes”:

(Her book is Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own PersonCheck out a short review here.)

Inspired by these, I’m setting a theme for 2018:

Year of building

Megan notes that setting a theme requires self-reflection, which usually means time to think. Yet my theme materialized almost immediately, perhaps because life events have prompted considerable self-reflection.

In the next 2 months, I’m taking a new job in a new city, where my partner and I will co-habitate at last after 4+ years of a long-distance relationship. So 2018 means building a new life together. Building my cred and reputation with a new team and boss. Those are givens. But it’s easy to focus on what’s right in front of you and to neglect other elements that are critical for finding happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment. I need to build a community and network outside of work and family. I want to build my fitness and wellbeing. I want to find ways to serve communities.

Building takes different forms. The obvious is creating something new. But it can also be adding on to or adapting foundations and structures. It can be re-building structures that perhaps were damaged or neglected a while.

Building requires prioritizing. It’s not just about making something pretty or flashy. It has to be structurally sound and functional first.

And building takes time. It’s a complex process. It takes a while to create something that will last.

When you watch something under construction, sometimes it looks like little has changed for weeks or months, despite the hours of work going in. Then suddenly it’s something that looks like the start of an edifice. You can begin to see the progress each day. Then it seems to stall again. But there’s work being done out of the public view.

A tower under construction, concrete slabs with exterior walls going up, next to a completed tower.

So here’s to patience, perseverance, and creativity. And a year of building in 2018.

What will your theme be?

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I should be sleeping

But it’s hard to sleep these days, even when I’m exhausted. It’s the stress and the excitement and the long list of things to get done.

In a little over a month, I’ll be in a new place. It’s not where I expected to be 6 months ago. But I’m excited and happy about it, even if a little anxious too.

More than 4-1/2 years ago, I met this guy. And, with no small amount of trepidation, I fell in love again. For the first year, we were a short flight part. Then I started a new job, still a train ride away. The location and the job were great though, and we both understood the importance for me to have a fulfilling career. For the last 3-1/2 years, we’ve traded weekends between our respective cities and spent amazing vacations together.

We talked about one day ending up in the same city. I looked for some jobs in his city, he in mine. But the cards just weren’t quite what we needed.

Then an opportunity arose. On the opposite side of the country. He got a great offer. And I have an offer at another institute in the area, pending the usual final hoops.

In just a week, I’ll work my last day of my first job after leaving biomed research. People doing biomed research occasionally ask me if I miss being at the bench. I honestly say no. This was the right way for me. And this job in particular has been interesting and rewarding. I’ve learned soooo much, and I’ve worked with some wonderful people.

I’m sad to leave some things behind but also eager to start some new ones. Life is dynamic. It’s time for the next things.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The cost of networking

We talk a lot about how networking is really important. And it is. Many collaborations, jobs, and other professional (and personal) opportunities arise out of connections made with others, often at conferences or local happy hours or any other number of meet-ups.

We often talk about the emotional/psychological challenges networking can hold for some of us. It can be exhausting for the introvert, uncomfortable for the shy, near panic-inducing for the socially anxious, overwhelming for the one with imposter syndrome.

Yet we don’t often talk about the financial aspect of networking. And this is also an important consideration.

Sometimes events at conferences or organized by local groups are sponsored and free, which cuts down on the financial concern.

But a lot of informal networking happens locally or at meetings. “Let’s meet for happy hour.” “Why don’t we continue this conversation over lunch?” “Hey, who’s in town for conference? Let’s get together for dinner!” There are (good) reasons for this. Our time is limited, especially when we’re traveling for work. Plus these can be more comfortable* settings that occurs over meals or drinks.

But cost—and uncertainty about what to expect—can make these outings stressful. Conferences are often in expensive cities (and often in expensive parts of those cities). There are caps on how much institutions will reimburse for each meal, and most (if not all) don’t reimburse the cost of alcohol. Academic institutions are notoriously slow in processing reimbursements. If the outing spins out of a local group or networking event, then there’s likely no financial cover for an informal gathering; it’s simply coming out of one’s own pocket. Many in attendance—especially early career folks—may have stretched finances.

If you’re out with 1 or 2 students or postdocs, it’s nice to pick up the tab (if you can afford it). It alleviates the financial pressure. I do this these days. Many of us have had professors or other established professionals pay for our coffee or dinner or drinks over the years, and paying it forward is one way to return the favor.

In a large, loosely associate group (e.g., people connecting for the first time), though, picking up the tab becomes less feasible. Singling out 1 or 2 people to cover may not be fair or comfortable, for you or them. So if you’re organizing a meetup, please be mindful of cost—especially if you don’t know everyone (or their financial position) well & especially if early career folks are invited. Everyone may not be as comfortable with a big bill as you may be.

Sure, if someone’s not comfortable with the prices, they can choose not to go or bail out at the door. But that means they’re missing out on an opportunity. Again, we tell everyone that networking is crucial. So are we really just OK with excluding someone who can’t afford it?

Alternatively a person may choose to go, but then be very stressed about accounting. They might try to be careful about what they order. The bill arrives and someone says, “Oh, let’s just make it easy and split it evenly.” The person who’s not comfortable with that arrangement may be too embarrassed to speak up. Now this chance to hang out with some interesting people, to talk, to network, and maybe to have some fun has turned into a source of anxiety. Beyond this one time, it might influence their stress level or willingness to join in the next opportunity that comes along.

This isn’t just some hypothetical scenario. It’s not just an exercise in empathy. I know how this feels because I’ve been this person. I’ve made the mental calculations over the course of the evening. I’ve discretely (or at least, I hoped it was discretely) double checked my account balance or made a transfer under the table. I haven’t had this experience for a few years. Yet just thinking about this—much less writing about it publicly—still induces that tight feeling in my chest. I can still feel that stress keenly. And it can even trigger a feeling of shame, a worry that even today people will think less of me because I was in such a financially precarious position.

So on behalf of past-me & others who have financial worries, please consider the cost of the informal events you plan and how it might stress or exclude those who’ve been invited.

And to all those who picked up my bill over the years, thank you for that kindness.


* Certain settings can be challenging for individuals for a variety of reasons. Some bars and restaurants present obstacles to those with mobility issues. Loud restaurants present a challenge if someone has a hearing impairment. Being surrounded by alcohol and those consuming it can be uncomfortable for many different reasons (from those who don’t drink for health or religious reasons to those who’ve been in unpleasant or even dangerous situations where drinking was involved). When organizing outings, try to be mindful that your comfortable setting might be uncomfortable for someone else.

This post is edited and expanded from a Twitter thread I posted 9 July 2017. I used Spooler, an app created by Darius Kazemi, to pull together the tweets from that thread for subsequent editing and expansion. If you’re a Twitter threader, check Spooler out.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A place for the stories of science & its harms

We were on a fast train from Brescia to Venice, my partner and I seated on opposite sides of one of the tables that filled the cars. Across the aisle, a middle-aged white couple sat on one side, an older Asian couple on the other. We had helped the latter stow their luggage when they boarded before settling in for the two-hour train ride. I was reading a book that I’d started earlier in the trip.

After a while, the Asian man stood. He was slight but not frail. I was a little surprised but unbothered when he sat down next to me. With no pretext, he inquired, “I am from Tokyo. Why are you reading this?”

Book cover, large sun rising behind a Japanese style bridge. John Hersey, Hiroshima.

“This” was John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”. Originally appearing in The New Yorker in 1946, it chronicles the stories of six individuals who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In the edition I’m reading, Hersey went back 30 years later to find out what happened to those survivors.

The traveler’s tone wasn’t confrontational, rather soft yet direct. I paused a moment. How did I explain to this man what and why I was reading about this atrocity, taken against his country by mine 40 years ago?

I have been reading about history and science recently, I tried to explain. I want to better understand those things, what we’ve done.

“This is about bomb, yes?” he verified.

“Yes,” I replied. I briefly described the provenance, that this was the story of survivors and what they saw and experienced that day. That it had been written to show Americans what had been done.

We continued to chat for a while. He was 73 years old, so he would have been a toddler at the time the atomic bombs were dropped. He asked if I knew of Kenzaburō Ōe, a Nobel laureate (I did not); he had read Ōe’s book about Hiroshima.

The conversation expanded to include talk of travels, drawing in the other couple across the aisle. The Japanese man was a lover of art, especially Italian Renaissance art he had learned about in school. He and his wife were retired. This was their third trip to Italy, and this one would last 50 days. Before parting, he got a pen from his wife and scrawled “Hersey Hiroshima” on the back of a train ticket, so he could look for a copy later.

In the end, it felt like a wholly inadequate explanation, and really it was. The answer was complex. It was difficult to summate my motivations succinctly, and here I faced the additional challenge that English was not his first language, and I knew only a few key words or phrases in Japanese or Italian.

I hadn’t been reading many books in the recent years. All throughout undergrad and grad school, I typically stayed with suspense, thriller, sci-fi, and fantasy. I’d sometimes pick up a piece of “literature”—a classic or a book that had picked up a prestigious prize.

Late last year, I started picking up books, but the genre changed dramatically. I wasn’t looking to escape into fantastical tales. I wanted to learn and understand more about history and society, their interplay, how they shaped norms and laws, and their continuing effects and echoes today. I had been reading many posts and articles online about such issues, but I wanted to engage with longer, deeper narratives.

This particular book selection arose out of a conversation with Hilda Bastian. We’d been talking about science communication and the frequent focus on the “Look at this amazing thing science has done.” She mentioned Hersey’s writing on Hiroshima as an important example of different perspective, one that was out of step with how others were approaching the bombing.

Though Hersey’s report is rather short for a book, I’m still working my way through it. Yet it’s a clearly powerful narrative. It’s one thing to know the specs of an atomic bomb, the 30,000-foot view of its power, the clinical view of what it does to the human body. It’s quite another to connect with the stories of individuals who experienced it. With the former, we may feel sympathy toward those affected, but the details and nuance of human stories bring us closer to empathy.

In recent months, I’ve seen a trope surfacing often. “Science is apolitical. Some scientists do bad things, but science itself cannot harm people. Science can’t be racist or sexist or biased in anyway. That’s just the people involved.” But that’s simply not true.

Science is, by its very nature, a human endeavor. There are laws of nature, such as gravity and chemical equilibria, that are immutable. But science is the process of building and applying bodies of knowledge. That means we cannot separate science from the actions of individuals who conducted unethical experiments, often using vulnerable and marginalized populations, to “advance” science. That means we cannot claim that the destructive outcomes of feats of science and engineering are not part of the canon of science.

Practitioners and advocates for science should wrestle with these issues. We should understand the historical context and the environmental and human costs of scientific achievements, both in how we got there and what society did with it. That goes for scientific and technological development today. We continue to see impacts of gender and racial bias in what gets focus, how questions are framed, and what’s produced.

We cannot claim that science has saved millions of lives through the development of antibiotics and vaccines while simultaneously exiling death and destruction of the atomic bomb as the purview of politicians. If we want to claim the benefits as victories of science, then we must also acknowledge the harms are just as much a part of science. To acknowledge them, we must learn our history—the history of science and society—and the stories of those in its midst. And so, though you, my fellow traveler ,will likely never see this—sir, that is why I am reading “Hiroshima”.

# # # # #

You can read Hersey’s “Hiroshima” free online. The New Yorker also published a short piece on the background and reception of the report for the magazine’s 85th anniversary. Hilda Bastian’s post on the early history of science journalism also includes some discussion of Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and other contemporary reporting on the atomic bomb

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment