The Bug Geek

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Category Archives: Getting to grad school

Wrong for science?

Last night I was up too late (again), nursing a too-busy brain with a good dose of Internet, when the Twitterverse led me to an post by Marie-Claire Shanahan on the blog Boundary Vision, entitled, “Who is the traditional right type of person for science?”

It would appear there are some common themes in terms of (high school) students’ opinions about what makes a good scientist, i.e., they are inquisitive, creative, follow rules, employ critical thinking, and have a certain level of theoretical or technical expertise.

There are also some common misconceptions, which are brilliantly illustrated in a comic that a number of my science-student-buddies were passing around last week:

Public perception of science, and the reality (from

It seems that students often think they’re not “the right type of person” to do science because of the mistaken notion that scientists have such giant, enormous brains that they never struggle, make mistakes, or have to ask questions. For example:

[A] student, who didn’t see herself as a science student despite having good marks, told me that she based her assessment mostly on the fact that she asks the teacher a lot of questions to make sure she understands. “Real science students shouldn’t have to do that”, she said. This seems in some ways antithetical to science. Isn’t asking questions and pushing until you understand one of the defining characteristics of scientific scholarship? Some students went as far as to say that real science students don’t need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already.

That student could have been me.

When I was in my second last year of high school, I was struggling to keep up in my senior biology class. My mark was dismal. My parents came in to chat with the teacher.  Her helpful advice? “Science isn’t really your thing.  You should try something else.”

If I hadn’t felt stupid already, I sure did now. I figured she was right: I did not, after all, really fit societal expectations of “a good science student”. My struggle turned into apathy. I stopped asking questions in class. I scraped by with a barely-passing grade.

The effects of the teachers’ words lingered. At the time of our conversation, I had been thinking about going to vet school. A year later, I was passionately anti-science, and would tell anyone who would listen that I was an “artsie”.

I applied for university programs in psychology, journalism and technical theatre. I ended up in journalism . It quickly became clear that, although I was doing well, it really wasn’t turning my crank…what on earth was I going to do?

Then, a lucky fluke: in my second semester I took an elective class called “Natural History of Ontario”. It was like a floodlight went off in my brain. HOLY CRAP, THIS STUFF IS AWESOME!  THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO!!! That summer I took 3 senior science and math classes, and started back at my university in the fall as a first-year biology student.

I haven’t looked back since.

Says Shanahan, in the original article on which her blog post was based:

The ability to generate new explanations, see novel connections, and navigate fluidly between representations are among only some of the aspects of scientific intelligence that have been neglected in students’ conceptualizations….In a classroom, however, [an] impoverished view of intelligence is the one that is likely rewarded. Grades are the primary measure of success in school science…

What I discovered as I successfully navigated through two science degrees, and continue to learn as I work on my third, is that many of my “messy” or “not-sciencey” characteristics are what help me learn and do good science. I “reauthored” myself as a science student, with new ideas about acceptable roles and attributes.

I ask a lot of questions – I don’t know everything, after all.

I make a lot of mistakes – but I learn from them.

I work hard to grasp new concepts – it helps me remember them and make meaningful connections to other concepts.

I do things my own way sometimes, not always following set rules – it lets me develop new approaches or ideas.

I permit myself to be distracted – my meandering, random brain often hits on great stuff that way.

As much as I’ve come to recognize the value of these traits, I am still, in some ways, as guilty as ever of believing that maybe I’m doing science all wrong, and that others are better scientists than me because they better adhere to my old notions about “real science” or “real scientists”.

Can we change the culture of science and science education to recognize and value traits other than those pervasive and persistently-held? DOES the culture change beyond high school? I would love to see this study repeated with, say, second-year university students. And again with tenured professors.


Shanahan, M., & Nieswandt, M. (2011). Science student role: Evidence of social structural norms specific to school science Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48 (4), 367-395 DOI: 10.1002/tea.20406

A true love story

Last week Ted got me thinking about my former life as a (how did he put it?) “disenchanted public servant”.  Yep, that was me.

My posts from those days paint a picture of me as:  1) often in a pissy mood and 2) often using potty-mouth (highly correlated to the pissyness according to my calculations P<0.001).   I was MAD a lot of the time.  At the very least highly aggravated.  Certainly much displeased.  Oh, and bored.  Bored Bored Bored with a capitol “B”.   

But now…now I am a student, and everything is shiny and new and sparkly.  My time is largely my own to manage.  I haven’t felt this “at home”, professionally, in years.  I’m feeling inspired.  I have a million things I want to do, and a bajillion ideas running around my head all demanding my attention.  All the “hobbies” (i.e., the stuff that actually really turns my crank intellectually) that I’d abandoned in the past five years are screaming for my attention.  My brain is so gosh-darn FIRED UP AND BUZZING I can hardly stand it (who’m I kidding, yes I sure can!)  

Truth be told, I’m in love.  For serious. 

Swoony, heart-beat-skippy, can’t-sleep-or-eat-ey, thoughts utterly consumed-ey, passionately, madly, unreasonably in love.

With school.   I’m in love with being back at school.

Yes, ok, I hear you (“WEIRD”), yes it’s weird, but I can’t think of another way to describe these feelings…

Right now, school is the most wonderfully magnificent thing on the planet.  It can do no wrong.  Every day is a beautiful adventure.  I feel important and needed and valued.  We were MADE for each other.  I’ll feel like this forever.   It’s, like, totally freaking groovy.


But I know that, after some time has passed and we’re out of the honeymoon stage, things won’t look quite the same way.

Demands of my time  might start to feel a little, um, a little needy.  The windowless lab with poor climate control…well, maybe a move to a nicer neighbourhood might be in order (you know, a place with a yard and A/C? And it wouldn’t hurt to decorate a little).  The reading, writing and paperwork will pile up; (a little “me” time might be nice every now and then, you know).   Funding sources may change (would it really kill you if YOU paid once in a while???). 

The annoying habits and quirky tendencies…soon enough these will become apparent, and I’ll come crashing back to earth.

But you know…

I feel like this is one of those rare relationships that will survive the shattering of the “in-love” delusion, and we’ll settle down into something comfy and respectful and lasting.   Something mutually beneficial, and utterly satisfying.  In spite of…no, INCLUDING…all the warts.

*Siiiiggghh* 😉


(Don’t worry, darling wife, you’re still my Favourite!)

Day one: Good

Today was Good.  I accomplished everything I wanted to:

  • student card
  • stipend/TA payment paperwork
  • lab and locker keys
  • free photocopies
  • free coffee (my classy labmates have fresh beans, a grinder and coffee press – love!)
  • signed up for WHMIS training
  • set up my laptop to access the campus VPN 
  • toured the lab in which I’ll be TAing (skeletons! specimen jars! microscopes! petri dishes!  Glee!!!)
  • wandered through buildings looking for People or Things That Might Be Useful
  • met roughly eleventy-million admin-type people, all of whom were lovely and helpful when I randomly appeared in their offices saying “hi, what do YOU do?”  They provided useful information then sent me on my way with stuff: maps, checklists, names/emails of other People That Might Be Useful, and in one case, a really swanky stainless steel travel mug!  Woot! 
  • attended my first orientation session – also useful

All good, productive stuff.

I found today…well, surreal for lack of a better term.  It was foreign and wonderfully familiar all at once.    The environment is a new one, but the soul of the place is something I know well, and it’s very comfortable.    It was like finding a really comfy sweatshirt I’d forgotten I owned in the back of the closet, slipping it on, and feeling like, “yeah, that’s nice”.    A good fit, if you will.

I also found myself frequently reflecting upon the marked difference between Me, The-30-Year-Old-Student-on-Her-First-Day-of-School and Me, The-19-Year-Old-Student-on-Her-First-Day-of-School.  

Me-19 was utterly terrified.   Completely out her comfort zone.  Avoided social events at all costs (only for the first couple of weeks, I got over it).  Barely spoke.   Hid in her dorm room.  Came across as either: a) a snob, or; b) a weirdo, depending who you asked.

Me-30, today, was confident, friendly, outgoing, chatting with lots of new people, asking questions, and generally having a fantastic time.  

The difference is profound, and wonderful.

School, Day One: tomorrow!


Yes, I’m excited (duh)!

While nothing terribly earth-shatteringly significant happens tomorrow (i.e., I plan to: attend an orientation, get a student card, chat with advisor, determine if I have a desk somewhere and if not where I can store my coffee mug, find my mailbox, do paperwork, figure out how to get free coffee and photocopies, etc., etc.), I’m still all like WHEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!

The Freedom Post

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