I’m A Scientist Because…

I recently added to the awesome hashtag on twitter #IAmaScientistBecause with:

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That was the first thing that came to mind when I thought of why I’m a scientist, then it really got me thinking. I often emphasize on the first part of that (connecting people with nature), but the second part is equally as important. I am a proud “nerd”, I love to learn, to question and to conquer a challenge. Luckily, as a PhD student these are great qualities to have, but as I look back over my younger years (middle-high school) I have some negative memories of these qualities as I received a lot of slack from the “popular kids” for them.

“A+ Katie”. That’s what they used to call me to tease me, starting in middle school. I didn’t even get A+s, other girls and boys got better grades than I did but for whatever reason I got dubbed “A+ Katie”. I hated it. Not only was I going through that awkward 13 year old girl stage (short, chubby, frizzy hair, crooked glasses, braces), but god-forbid that I actually liked school. I thrived on giving class presentations (always volunteering to go first), loved doing research projects, was giddy at winning the 7th grade Science Fair, and thought extra credit was an extra opportunity to learn so why wouldn’t you do it? I really enjoyed when I succeeded, when I figured something out. Looking back I know that these are good qualities, but it was a struggle for me then. Luckily, I am stubborn and didn’t let it deter me from my goals, but it hurt, made me ashamed for doing so well and it really took down my self-confidence.

My friend Kalani and I with our winning 7th grade science fair project.

My friend Kalani and I with our winning 7th grade science fair project.

I wasn’t even into stereotypical “nerdy” extracurricular activities: after school I was an athlete, playing soccer my whole life up to high school, then adding volleyball, cross country and track and field. I remember, after a tough day at school when the other kids were particularly nasty to me, stepping onto that field/court and feeling unstoppable. Thanks to Title IX, I had a place where I felt strong, empowered and like no one could stop me. I was not the best athlete, and my teams were not always exceptional, but having control, knowing I could contribute, that I was part of something despite my A+ grades is something I am so thankful for. “Despite my A+ grades”, that’s really how it felt. I was “normal” on the field, not this nerdy freak who for some reason loved school. 

Me (in yellow), where I felt the most confident - on the soccer field.

Me (in yellow), where I felt the most confident – on the soccer field.

As I moved away from my small, Southern California, hometown to go to UC San Diego, I quickly realized that my ambitions, my “nerdiness” was actually a gift – something that would enrich my life and help me find my place. In my science classes were other people, just like me, excited to learn. As senior year approached and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was lucky to have incredible women role models, the girls at the small non-profit ProPeninsula (now part of the Ocean Foundation; Frances, Giuliana and Kama), my first boss, Wendy (then Director of Education at the Living Coast Discovery Center) and the women at NOAA where I interned (Robin, Camryn, Cali, Sheila, Amy). These smart, successful, scientists and science communicators gave me an opportunity to see what an “A+ Katie” all grown up could be: smart, successful, passionate, proud and a role model to other young “A+ Katie’s”. I am forever grateful to them and strive to pay it forward to the next generation of scientists. 

As a PhD student at Texas A&M, I recently received a new title to go with my name, “National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow” – the humbling PhD version of “A+ Katie” and one that I am honored and proud to be associated with. It affords me with a great opportunity to conduct my research, expand my outreach efforts and give back. All those years of hard work and perseverance, despite the name-calling, have paid off. I am a proud scientist, proud of my good grades, my over achieving, my “A+ Katie-ness”. I hope that as my career continues that I am able to be a positive light for new generation of scientists, men and women – being smart is okay, being “nerdy” is okay, actually – it’s better than okay, it’s awesome. 

I get to do awesome things now that I'm a scientist: like studying sea turtles in Latin America

I get to do some awesome things now that I’m a scientist: like studying sea turtles in Latin America

In the lab!

In the lab!