Awkward Encounters with Job In-security

As the unprecedented front of Hurricane Sandy draws near I find it harder and harder not to believe in climate change, and I’m constantly flabbergasted by those who still maintain that humans have nothing to do with our shifting global temperatures. Do you really need a PhD to understand that we have to make changes to our current treatment of the environment? Unfortunately, PhD’s are simultaneously distrusted, misunderstood, and held aloof by many people today. That outlook is bleak for me.

Firstly, everyone in Sandy’s path, stay safe and best of luck.

Now, on to my current gripe. There are certain times when I become very bothered by the long held notion that scientists, (particularly those with the three letters P-H-D attached to their names) are so intellectually removed and above the general populace. It’s with a certain reluctance that I tell people what I’m in graduate school for, and it’s generally because they recoil from me like I must be an elitist prick, often with a wide eyed facial expression followed by a physical  inclination of the head backward. Don’t get me wrong, some people really enjoy this shock-inducing attention. I’m just not one of them.

This reaction is instantly uncomfortable because it labels me as different, as part of some alternate group that suddenly doesn’t include that person I’m talking to. Everyone likes to fit in and feel included, and that is definitely not what that reaction evokes. Instantly I feel forced into a corner where I can either try to explain my research in a simultaneously non-technical yet non-patronizing way (silently arguing that no, it’s really not that out there), or look down at my shoes and mumble something inaudible. I usually choose the latter. It’s no wonder that scientists have such a reputation for being anti-social wallflower types with less than optimal party conversation skills.

This reactionary treatment from strangers has happened to me on two occasions in the last two weeks. The first, I was actually attempting not to be a wallflower at a graduate student reception and asked a girl I didn’t know (but  was introduced to by a friend) what was her graduate major. Okay, admittedly this might not have been the best opening line. She replied she was a Theater major and inquired after me. I said awesome, I was doing Genetics. Then came the feared wide eyes, step back, the exclamation of wow, she could never do that. Perhaps what she failed to realize was that while my profession may make her feel insecure, her reaction makes me feel just as insecure and self conscious. I decided to explain to her how I really felt about her reaction. I replied that theater, well I could never do that. For me who suffered from nearly debilitating stage fright in high school, her job was hard and impressive, takes work, and in my book, enriches people’s lives. That’s important! It’s just different, plain and simple. Unfortunately she seemed skeptical and soon removed herself, leaving me standing awkwardly unoccupied. I regretted volunteering my views comparing our two fields.

I had the opportunity to try a different tactic a week later, when I decided to set up in my favorite Peet’s Coffee shop with a pumpkin latte and work on some Biochemistry practice exams. Instantly the older gentleman at the table next to me took a sidelong look and asked if I was doing homework. “Well yes, attempting,” I replied, and turned back to my coffee and structures. I’m already annoyed and very obviously flashing my sparkly engagement ring as a leave-me-alone-I’m-not-single-message. Learning from my earlier experience with the theater graduate student, I try very hard not to engage him in conversation without being overtly rude. A long pause. I may just get away with drinking my coffee in peace. “It looks hard, what you’re doing,” he ventures, pretty much apropos of nothing. Then he derides himself by adding, “I could never do what you’re doing, I just don’t have the brain for it I guess.”  I’m baffled: why the incessant need to judge what other people do against what you personally do with your life? I glance over at his table, getting a peak at a well worn philosophical novel and scribbled pages of handwritten sheet music. I suppose he’s attempting to complement me or fishing for one himself, but I’m not in the mood. He was clearly writing his own very complicated musical piece, something I myself could never do. I told him, “I don’t think it’s different brains, it’s just about what you enjoy doing.” I wanted to get across that it’s what you like to do in life that should drive your profession, and just because I enjoy it doesn’t mean I’m an instant wiz.  Everyone likes different areas and different fields, none of which are better one than the other. He looked sheepishly down at his musical composition, muttered he guessed so, picked up his coffee and left, telling me to “enjoy” my homework. Apparently that wasn’t the right thing to say either.

So it’s really hard for me to talk in detail about what I do to those who ask, and I haven’t quite figured out how. I’d rather emphasize my interests, talking about my concerns for human health and disease, how I had family members and mentors die of  cancer, influencing my career path. I think those are things people can relate to because it’s your experience not your intellect that becomes the driving force. People are very insecure about their intellects (myself included), but as the NY Times reports, smart is the norm, not the exception.

But this knee-jerk “I’m so impressed” reaction is one of those things people think they should do, as if a PhD somehow demands respect or acknowledgment. Unfortunately, not all PhD’s are created equally smart nor does “smarts” have to be a prerequisite for that PhD. I think the social isolation presents a real barrier to emerging and amateur scientists, and worse, creates an artificial barrier to the public’s understanding and acceptance of science broadly. If people constantly and immediately view science as obscure and incomprehensible, how will we make connections to the issues that we face every day that are directly related: healthcare, clean water, climate change?



We started off our second day in the city with a late brunch, having no energy to rise before ten AM. We selected an upscale place in Chelsea, amusingly titled Il Bastardo Restaurant and Wine bar. As we arrived, having heard their brunch was somewhat popular, we surprised to find the place deserted and trimmed head to toe with rainbow flags. No sooner had we been greeted by the sarcastic hostess that a line to get in quickly formed behind us and by the time we ordered our drinks the place was packed. No doubt their morning unlimited Momosa or Bloody Mary special brought in the crowds, because the food was not remarkable and the portions less than substantial. My first plate came equipped with it’s own larvae, and I was forced to send it back. The table conversation quickly morphed into restaurant horror stories with everything found in food from roaches to cigarette butts. After that not so yummy but very entertaining morning, we decided to hit the MOMA, which incidentally was steps away from our hotel.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew that for the most part, modern art is often lost on me to such a degree I often avoid it like the plague. I thought at first when we stepped into the first room, abstract art, that my fears were confirmed. In the middle of the room lay a giant purple rowboat constructed (somehow) out of stuffed purple spandex tubes that made it resemble a sea anemone.

On the wall were various etchings of hair balls, and next to that, the letter “e” written in cursive over and over. Was I missing the profound meaning of these balls of hair or this purple spandex boat? Thankfully, the next room was remarkably different, and every room after that had something else to offer. One was all furniture and household objects from inventors, some designs well known, others obscure but still remarkably interesting. Some exhibits were actually functional, such as the scale model of New York city re-designed to recommend environmental changes in the event that global warming rises sea level enough to affect the city. I was even more surprised when I found out the top floor was almost entirely paintings by famous artists, and sitting right in the middle of it all, no frills, was Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” You wouldn’t even have known it was there if it were not for the unusually large crowd of people standing around it. And although it was great to see it in person, I was more taken by a particular Picasso. I just love the colors, the symmetry, the shapes. If I ever find a print of it, it’s going on my wall!

Seeing all those paintings, which included Salvador Dali, Kandinsky, Diego Rivera, and others, was definitely the highlight of the trip, which was nicely finished off with an ice cream in the sculpture garden. And although the garden had less sculptures and more people, it was still incredibly pleasant to eat super delicious ice cream in the shade of beautiful birch trees rustling  slightly below the gorgeous NYC architecture.

We finished the day off with some great Mexican food and a blues show in Greenwich Village. NYC is great for food, museums, and music. What more do you need?

The Met in Brief

From the outside, the Metropolitan Museum of Art looks just like any other museum, and to tell the honest truth, museums have never been my favorite pasttime. But the operative word is definitely “metropolitan,” because here there is something for everyone. While walking through in awe, I felt the offhanded and slightly frustrated comment of an older woman to her husband summed up my thoughts exactly: “you’d need a week in this place!” she huffed.
It started out like any other museum with all the basics: the Egyptian rooms, the Italian paintings, the Greek and Roman statues. But who can compete with an entire Egyptian tomb inside a glass courtyard? We are talking surrounded by a moat! The tomb itself, complete with a Sphinx, and period grafiti, wasn’t even that spectacular, but the setting and the presentation made it awe inspiring. The museum was simply massive, the presentation of the pieces superb. They presented some absolutely huge pieces, or just massive amounts of smaller ones. The collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany, for example, did not simply contain his popular lamps and vases as expected, but mosaic fountains, monstrous stained glass windows, and full size columns! They seemed to import whole building facades just because they could, and even use theatrical means to present their more modern collections. Their special exhibit, titled “American Woman” sounded as if it would be a selection of artful black and white photography of women performing every day duties. Instead, as you entered the first room you encountered a period salon, styled as a Victorian era house. The room, titled “The Heiress,” was a collection of full size dolls modeling the period clothing of the wealthy heiress archetype, and the next few rooms followed this model. We walked through “the Gibson Girl,” “the Flapper,” “the Suffragette” and others, all styled wearing exquisite but representative clothing of their time. The exhibit culminated in modern influential woman, shown as a photo montage. But for those preferring the more traditional art in an art museum, their Picaso collection was huge. Spanning an impressive five or more rooms, his work was all inclusive, complete with lesser known etchings and realistic portraits alongside famous pieces. The Impressionist room featuring Van Gogh and Monet, contained lesser known works from these artists that were almost more interesting than the famous paintings attracting all the attention. It was easy to lose yourself in the labyrinthine corridors and forget that there were not simply many more rooms, but many more floors to traverse. To make a day of it, the best way to get to the Met is to approach from the side adjoining Central Park, after having taken a midday walk through the park. The Met can be seen sparkling through the trees, promising new discoveries and glimpses into time almost the way the original pieces must have been in all their glory. While I thoroughly enjoyed myself and could return again and again, I will traverse the MOMA tomorrow instead. Again, modern art is not my thing, but maybe this museum will wow me too. Expect a compare and contrast.