I was fortunate
that I was not prodded, pushed, or propelled into science, but was allowed to
discover it on my own. I uncovered it in bits and pieces, strewn about our
house, like buried treasure. First, I found the books.
I grew up in a small bungalow, in a blue collar neighborhood, the youngest of four children. My
mother was a stay-at-home mom and my father worked the loading dock of a
transport company. There was enough money for some treats, like getting fries
and a coke during a grocery shopping trip, but I knew not to ask for more.
My parents had
been unable to get a good education, but encouraged their children to do well
in school. We did not have many books in our home, but my parents did buy some
reference compilations. I remember finding a Time-Life series on science, which
must have been purchased for my older brothers because it was stored in the top
of a closet.
I was old
enough to know that chairs were made for getting things from tops of closets. I
don’t remember reading the books, but there were many big glossy pictures that
illustrated examples of the force of nature and the creativity of science. I
was captivated. I wanted to learn more and understand what was happening in
those pretty pictures. Some of those images are still vivid memories for me. I
did not ask my parents about them, because as first generation immigrants, they
were struggling to learn English themselves.
In order to make the little money we had stretch as far as possible, my mother
was always busy cooking, baking, sewing, and knitting, in addition to the
regular households tasks of doing the laundry and cleaning. I learned to keep
myself occupied when there were no friends to play with. On one such occasion
of looking for something to do, I found an old chemistry set and cheap
microscope in the basement. Again, these were discarded gifts that had been
bought for my older brothers, who were now in high school and university.
I also received
presents, but my parents envisioned me as a teacher or a nurse, not a
scientist. When I was older, I read and performed the ‘fun experiments’
outlined in the instruction booklet. I don’t remember all the details, but I
remember the fun I had with the test tubes, the rack, and the colored crystals
in tiny bottles. When I used the microscope and saw the hidden world around me,
it was magical, and I gasped. I knew this was what I wanted to keep doing.
In elementary school, we had to research and present a career we wanted to
pursue. I was the only one to choose a bacteriologist. They studied the secret
microscopic world, for new knowledge and unknown dangers, and they made $18,000
a year. It was perfect. I was ready for a career in science — and then I went
to high school.
Next — High School and the Gender Gap (or How I Almost Gave Up on Science).