The Science Stigma

Since middle school, my mind was set on a career in science. It seemed obvious at the time – I was good at it, liked it well enough, and it proved how smart I was. Going into science felt like giving a million middle fingers to the dumb blonde stereotype, like the feminist career choice, the thing true intellectuals pursue. While my friends hung their self worth on their appearances and clothes, I proudly nailed mine to academics. I would write every test cold blooded, do my math homework in PEN. No mistakes here, bitches.

My system worked pretty well for a few years. Zits and other nasty outcroppings on the stippled surface that is my face never really bothered me. I never obsessed over boys or sandals. This isn’t to say that doing any of those things is inherently evil and suppressive; they certainly are neither. But in my case, my academic goals took precedence over personal, and the unreasonable standards I set for myself soon became a sort of security blanket. Instead of spending time with my friends, I would work in the library alone, writing out study notes and googling practice tests. I became dependent on my grades for a shot of self-confidence, a boost of energy and motivation. Then grade 11 started, and along with it, functions. Having done well in math the years before, I felt pretty set.

I failed the first two tests and was completely blindsided – I’d never failed anything before. I did everything they tell you to: got a tutor, came to every class, asked questions, took good notes, did all my homework. But I still struggled. I’d never had to work this hard before for such mediocre marks. I started to wonder why I was forcing myself to take all these classes I hated, when I had so many other choices. Why did I push myself so hard in a direction I didn’t enjoy? Why bully myself into taking courses that bored me? I passed math with a mark in the low eighties, relieved to finally be done with it.

That winter I heard the author Junot Diaz give a talk at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival. It blew my mind. He was so smart, so well spoken, so funny. Hang on, I thought. He’s about as far from science as possible, and he may or may not be the smartest person I’ve ever met. I started to realize that science isn’t everything and that one person’s predisposition is no better than another’s. So this year, I dropped Advanced Functions, Calculus and Chemistry. I know that continuing to force myself through math and science “because it’s the right thing to do” will only make me hate it even more. It’s not a lack of capability – it’s a conscious decision to do what is right for me. I think I owe it to myself to take courses and paths that excite, interest and intrigue me.

Since changing my schedule at the beginning of this term, I’ve thought a lot about my decision. I don’t regret it, but I do still doubt myself. Did I limit my career possibilities? Well, probably. Did I ‘close doors’? Mmhm. But I would have been unhappy living those potential futures, working my ass off in a class/career I disliked. That said, I’m still very conscious of marks and put a great deal of effort into my current courses. Now, however, my academic achievements feel like part of much bigger picture. I have room to breathe, as cliche as it may sound.

There exists this attitude, one which I obviously used to subscribe to, that smart people go into science, or that science is the right thing to do if you want to be successful and happy. Neither of those statements are at all true. If science makes you happy, do it. If it doesn’t, if you can’t even imagine doing it for the next 40 years of your life, then get the hell out. Don’t waste your time. I know it can be hard to take that leap, to move into a completely new academic paradigm, but believe me, if I can do it, so can you. Don’t let yourself be swept up in the notion that you have to do anything, or follow any certain path because it’s the ‘right’ one.

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