Friday, December 19, 2008

Science article

The journal Science wrote an article about me (free registration req.) released in this week's edition. It's not bad -- at least it gets all the facts right which, evidenced by numerous previous experiences, is a real accomplishment in journalism, kudos to the author Mitch Leslie. The article is a "Curious Character" kind of story which is a relief as I feared that it would be a "Man loses legs, runs marathon" story. Unfortunately it has only a touch of what I hoped for which was a "Want to get into science from the outside? You can! This guy did" story.

I get asked about my odd non-academic entry into the world science all the time. And I very much hope that my example demonstrates that if you dream of playing the ultimate-nerd-sport of pure science research then just do it. Not only is it possible to enter the so-called ivory towers from the outside but it was easier than I ever imagined. My outsider’s knowledge base was both sufficient and valuable. When I got into science I thought it would take a long time before I could contribute anything. I was pleased to quickly realize that I wildly underestimated what my contributions would be.

My entry story boils down to this. I went down to UT, talked to a graduate adviser who gave me the party-line ("first get a GED, then get an undergraduate degree, then ... "). As I left that adviser's office, discouraged, I asked for a name of a professor who might be into certain subjects and he mentioned Edward Marcotte's name. I took Edward to lunch and we became instant friends because we share a huge enthusiasm for all things nerdy. After hours of geeking-out together he asked: "So what do you want to do?" and I said, "I don't know, just hang out and learn stuff." "Cool," he replied, "there's a desk. Meetings are on Fridays".

That's really all there was to it. I started hanging out in his lab and everybody seemed to assume I was a postdoc. Before long I had met several other professors and within weeks I was working on more projects than I will be able to finish in my lifetime. It wasn’t long before people were making job offers. While this episode might be a rare event based on the meeting of two like minds, I think it says something about the refreshingly open culture of science. Don't get me wrong, academic science is a human endeavor with human feelings of territorialism, etc., but in comparison to many other fields, it deserves credit as being fairly open-minded and meritocratous. After all, science is the ultimate nerd pursuit -- and nerds as a stereotype value technical achievement over prestige (not all, but many). Still, contrast it to walking into the similarly nerdy engineering department of a major corporation, say Boeing or GM, and telling someone that you just wanted to "hang out". Even if you found a friend in the company it wouldn't be long before a higher-up manager would suspect you as being a corporate spy and want you to either join the company or get out while threatening your friend with NDA violations.

Part of the openness of academics lies in the simple fact that a University is not a chartered feudal hierarchy but rather a coalition of independent lords with a governing body. (I suspect this is not so much an analogy as it is that the actual history of English academics is modeled after the post-Magna Carta arrangement of free, independent lords under royal patronage). Thus, a tenured professor or "principal investigator" (PI) such as Edward runs his lab however he sees fit -- constrained only by safety, morality, and money. That said, there are standard working procedures: undergraduates become graduate students become doctors become post-docs become professors. So, while it is very abnormal for an outsider like me to just show up out of nowhere, the system is refreshingly tolerant to such an entry.

When writing this story, the author, Mitch, called my friend Professor John Davis of the EE Department. John told me that Mitch asked: “So should we be looking for more Zacks or is he totally unique.” I said to John, “I hope you replied that there are lots more Zacks in the world!” John fell silent. “Oh no!” I exclaimed. I mean, just among my own friends I’ve already gotten three people to come into the system in ways somewhat analogous to my own entry. Thomas -- game programmer now working on molecular simulators for two labs. Mark -- game programmer and self-taught organic chemist working in another lab. Steve -- playwright turned biotech entrepreneur about to employed by the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology. I mean, if 3 of my small circle of friends are inspired to get into science in just 5 years then there must be tens of thousands of other outsider-nerds waiting to be recruited! It’s a vast would-be nerd conspiracy! The only thing I hoped for out of this article is for those people to be inspired to action if they so choose to be and I'm not too sure that came across.

I’ve made this argument about my entry and non-uniqueness to several “insider” friends and I keep getting the same response: “But Zack, you’re so smart”. I find this response psychologically interesting. I can’t help but think that my insider friends find it easier to explain me as a freak of nature than it is for them to admit that all the expense and work they went through to get into their positions could be so easily bypassed. Of course, they well know that I studied just as hard as them to get where I am. I wasn’t born knowing things anymore than they were. But there is a difference in our paths -- I never did even one second of work I didn’t want to do while many of my grad student friends frequently (and somewhat hyperbolically) complain of being treated like slaves. So, yes, I’m smart; but I’m no smarter than my PI friends such as Edward, John, or Andy.

Indeed, Edward and I form an almost perfect experiment and control. Edward and I are freakishly similar. We are both high-functioning mildly autistic. We have eerily similar responses to many stimuli and have very similar temperaments. We both hate being told what to do. The only really significant difference in our skills is that I have dyslexia and he has whatever the opposite of that would be called (“superlexia”?). He can read 20 papers in the time it takes me to read 1. We both went to bad public high-schools although his was slightly better than mine. Had my school been a little bit better or his a little bit worse, we could easily have ended up on the other one’s trajectory. What’s different about Edward and me is mostly the path we took, not our natures. And it is why we work so well together – because we have different points of view but backed with the same intelligence and enthusiasm.

People (such as my own family) often frame my story as success “despite” dropping out of school. I find this highly prejudiced. Nobody ever seems to consider that I succeeded “because” I dropped out of school. It seems to me that our society treats school as a kind of magical elixir – a cure to whatever ails ‘ya. Poor and disadvantaged? School! Rich and spoiled? School! Curious? School! Bored? School! Let me clear -- the universal access to school is one of the greatest and most important accomplishments of our civilization. I am not dismissing the wonderful contribution of formal education to the world. That said, school is not a cure all. It is not the perfect path for everyone’s journey. To make my case, let me point out some of the advantages of my path.

First, my natural temperament is to resist doing anything I’m told to do. My mother claims I’ve been like this since I was born and that parenting me was an exercise in making me believe that things in need of doing were my idea. So getting out of school took away all of this unnecessary friction. (One can argue that I should have “just gotten over” that stubborn streak and I’d counter that if school cures whatever ails ‘ya then why didn’t it “fix” that?)

Second, by entering the workforce at 17, I started saving money very early and the compound interest on that savings is significant. While my friends went into debt to educate themselves (some are still paying those debts), I was being *paid* to educate myself. At 38 I’m in a much better financial position than my friends who went through school and that affords a lot more options such as, but not limited to, hanging out in labs, making artwork, and building pretty houses.

Third, I arguably have a superior education -- after all, I had a student to teacher ratio of one to one! While they sat in big anonymous classes I sat on the porches and couches of those same professors’ homes. All my teachers were my friends; they didn’t teach me because it was part of an institutional compact, but rather because that’s what friends do -- they hang out, they share ideas, the older ones impart knowledge to the younger while the younger impart enthusiasm to the older. That bond of friendship is much stronger than the one between a professor and a student and thus the two-way street of care and respect that is the magic of education is consequently more robust when spontaneous and voluntary.

Fourth, I never did anything I didn’t want to do. I never did someone else’s dirty work. I didn’t take any retrospectively useless classes. I didn’t worry about my grades. I didn’t suck up to any professors. I didn’t have to prove myself to arbitrary gatekeepers. I wasn’t told what to learn and more importantly I wasn’t told what not to learn. Someone once told me that I “owned” my knowledge while others seemed to “borrow” it and while I think that is overstating it, the degree to which there is truth in that statement is a result of constructing the learning path myself.

Fifth, I ended up with a broad knowledge base. My knowledge in any one field is certainly shallower than any of my friend’s knowledge in their respective fields, but I have a passing knowledge of a lot more fields. Grad school is very narrowly focused and consequently it seems to me that it is as much about indoctrination as it is about education.

The world needs lots of people that have deep penetrating knowledge of their subjects. The world also needs people who have broad but consequently more shallow views of many subjects so that they can help to bridge subjects. The educational system produces many of the first type but few, if any, of the second. Indeed, this gets me back to my thesis: I think my utility, my success, is *because* I didn’t go to school not despite it. Outsider opinions are necessary and valuable; they, ipso facto, don’t come from inside the system.


Edward said...

I like your response. My feeling on the Science article is that it wasn't bad--it did get most of the facts correct--it just didn't capture the essential spark and zest for life that makes you interesting. So, it had all of the facts, but none of the passion, and therefore largely missed the point. However, no damage done, and good publicity (although probably makes you blush to read it). The first sentence bothered me a bit: "Nearly 5 years ago, molecular biologist EM recalls, a high school dropout walked into his office..." What a way to characterize you! I certainly don't recall a high school dropout walking into my office. I recall a fascinating person with an interesting and compelling world-view who was fun to hang out with and talk to, and who became a good friend. I know Mitch needed a hook for the story, but that seemed a bit much. Is that the defining feature of Walt Disney, John D. Rockefeller or Thomas Edison--all high-school dropouts? (& for what it's worth, I never really saw myself in the role of 'establishment figure' either!)

Still, not bad overall!


Nina Simon said...

This is a wonderful story; thank you for sharing it. I recently wrote about my anti-school tendencies and how they drove me into working in museums. One of the things I love about science centers/museums is how creative and variable the background of the "educator" staff is. It's also a reason I feel negatively about museum graduate programs--that the commoditization of what it takes to be a successful museum educator removes the opportunity for creative outsiders to dominate.

When I encourage people to just walk into a museum and offer themselves up, they say, "well, you're really confident." Like you, I know lots of great people who have pushed their way into what they want, and frankly, I prefer to work with people who have had some agency in exerting their preferences rather than sitting in class for the proper number of credits. It worries me when we ascribe value to showing up instead of to being passionate and committed.

JonathanCline said...

I am doing the same thing as you were, I think - previously a s/w engineer now doing a bio project (it's posted on OWW). I would appreciate some input w/r/t working with a lab. Can you send me an email so we can discuss?

Anonymous said...

I wrote a comment but deleted it because I want to read your blog completely before blubbering about how awesome this entry was for me. Except for me substitute serious chronic illness with dropout and I can relate with you how annoying it was for people to tell me how my achievements were great because of it. Honestly it sucks now how my failures erase all past achievements because to them it was inevitable anyways. No doctorate because they kicked you out? Sorry, kiddo shouldnt have tried anyways with your condition. (Silent expletive......)