Field of Science

This is my dream: I am science

This is my foot. On this foot and its partner, I learned to walk and then to run. When I was a young girl, I had a dream of using this foot--and my other one--as a ballet dancer. While the energy level fit the profile, the rest of me, including this foot, did not. This foot and its partner have since taken me on countless strides as I gathered and dropped dreams. With them, I made my way through four-and-a-half decades of life, sporting footwear that ranged from the dressy black pattens of my youth to the Madonna-inspired sandals of my teens to the oh-so-sensible Clarks I favor now.

This foot along with its partner walked me through minimum-wage work at fast-food restaurants, pizza places, book stores, delis, and dry cleaners, often two or three at a time, as I paid my way through college. It's taken me, with its partner, on countless trails in out-of-the-way places to see things not so many people have seen, over sidewalks and cobblestones on three continents, straight into harm at times, and quickly away from it at others. With these feet, I've also walked away from many a dream dropped or denied. After all we've been through together, though, I'm glad they still work.

This is my arm. With it, I have swum many freestyle miles, played volleyball and softball, and wielded a violin. With each effort I made, I had an irrational dream that I'd be good, great, that it would stick and I'd find a passion for a lifetime. But volleyball and softball and swimming faded with my interest. Violin always took me to second chair, never first, and eight years in, I dropped that dream, tired of never quite being the one who got to pick up and lead the melody. Or, more candidly, realizing that I just wasn't that good at it.

That arm now bears scars, ones I picked up from myself in my teens, in college, trying to find some way to feel as I let myself get lost in an endless stream of beer-soured nights and rotted my gut and my mind and wasted untold hours of my youth.

This is my hand. With this hand, I played hours of daily piano over a decade-plus of training and performance before letting go of the dream of classical musician, unable to commit myself to what is undeniably a dream that few people can realize. This hand and its partner can still knock out some mean Beethoven, but it's all just muscle memory now.

I gave this hand in a marriage, committing to what became a nightmare, thanks to the beer and the wasted hours and the numbed ability to dream in any way. Ever optmistic, I've given this hand--and taken another--in marriage again. That dream? Still the best one of all.

Since I was five years old, I've used the partner of this hand to write. Writing so hard that the middle finger callous I formed at that age remains, a knot of toughness that represents the hours I've dedicated for 38 years to writing. The callous has diminished somewhat, replaced by fingertips that sometimes ache after daily hours of tap-tap-tapping a keyboard, compulsively turning out words for me, for anyone, for I cannot help myself. And sometimes, figuratively speaking, through my writing, I use that middle finger to send a message to the world. Those are the bad days.

This is my brain. This brain was with me all along. It was interested in everything and drove me to dream--out loud--when I was very young that I and it could learn everything there ever was to learn in the world. It dreamed with me of writing about life, the universe, and everything while never losing its ability to absorb the beauty of a poem, the iambics of Shakespeare, or the graceful horror of Mishima. It survived mostly intact my alcoholism and cigarette addiction, woke to a burning fire of knowledge when I became a graduate student in science. It remembered clearly how we had always wanted to write about the world around us, to understand, to know know know. It got me through to a PhD, strengthening all the time, recovering from those wasted years and pickling of my youth. What began as a childish fascination with the natural world became an obsession for this brain, one that led me past the PhD, to a lab of my own, to a fellowship in one of the greatest cities in the world, to teaching thousands with the passion it engendered in me, to home my writing in on science and science alone.

This is my hair. Grey is making its way in. I'm leaving it there because it means I'm still here after all the things that should, justifiably, have made that impossible. It reminds me that yes, I have done things, dreamed things, and let some things go before they killed me. It's also wiry and silvery, and I think it's going to look pretty cool. A woman can dream, right?

These are my eyes. They've watched people die and seen newborns become adults. They've watched you, probably, with the brain behind them taking mental notes and making up a story about you that may or may not be true. They've seen tiny things that others overlook and overlooked large things that everyone seems to understand. They've viewed the world from its northern pole and through the highest magnification of a microscope. They've looked like this--a lot--but they can also twinkle. Talk science or literature to me, and I'll twinkle them for you. They're my windows onto almost everything I've ever learned or written or found fascinating about the natural world. They no longer see as well as they once did, but I think I'll keep 'em.

These are my children. With the arrival of the first, my dreams took on a new dimension, down byways I didn't know existed. While their path remains open and unknown, many dreams of my own that I've dropped are gone for good. My brain tells me that this understanding is a part of maturity. But that doesn't mean I've got to let go of some dreams for my children. They have feet. They have hands. They have brains. They have eyes. What will they do with them? I can only dream. Or, maybe, I'll just write about it. Scientifically, of course. After all, I am still living a dream.


  1. Oh emily! This is so poetic and beautiful. I was fine till I got to your hair and welled up at "I'm still here after all the things that should, justifiably, have made that impossible". Thank you for still being here and I'm glad to have gotten to known you :)

  2. *swoon* You are amazing, every last bit of you -- including your three sequels. And the words you share.

  3. This is my comment: Wow! That was stunningly beautiful. Or beautifully stunning. Poetry and science and inspiration. Wow!

  4. Emily I'm in awe of you and your amazing abilities. Love you!! Carin

  5. Marianne Alleyne (Cotesia1)February 1, 2012 at 9:58 PM

    Emily - absolutely lovely. Thank you!

  6. To the poet-scientist, long may she live. Bravo.

  7. Thanks. For anyone who just stumbles into to this, it is a piece I wrote as part of the I Am Science meme that Kevin Zelnio kicked off on Twitter and then took to the world.


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