Monday, August 4, 2008

Why Not Math?

A few years ago I started a community on Orkut called Women in Science. This past month one of the members was asking why are there more women in biological sciences and not so many in physics and math. It got me thinking about why I chose biology...

It would be easy to say that I chose biology because of my dad, who is a biologist, but I don't think that is true. I was interested in science since my early years, while my brothers were not. We were all exposed to a researcher's life and got to spend some odd days in my dad's lab. I didn't grow up with the "mad scientist" image. There are also many scientists in my family, one could even say it's "genetics." Maybe, but there is always the nurture vs. nature conundrum...

Part of my career choice was probably due to the good (and bad) teachers I had in grade school. I had 3 wonderful math teachers (all women by the way) and, if asked, I would have said math was my favorite subject. I had a great biology teacher my first year of high school, but the other ones were just OK. My physics teachers were not inspiring at all, neither were the chemistry ones. Can I really say that one teacher changed my life? I don't think so... I had great physics and chemistry professors in college, but by then I was already set on plant biology. In college, one of my physics professors even tried to talk me into switching majors, but all I could see in physics was the math. I hated the question 'Does this answer make sense to you?', I never had the insight for it.

When I was choosing my college major, I thought of math too. However, I didn't know what to do with it. I knew what the actual work in biology was, but I was not exposed to what a mathematician actually did. All I could see was math teachers, and that was not what I wanted to become. I should add to the "nurture" list the fact that I was able to experience working in a biology lab very early. My high school was part of an outreach program that placed students into research labs one afternoon a week for a year. When I heard about it, my reaction was 'why not? I like biology...' I ended up in a molecular biology lab, under renovations at the time. Not the best placement, and most of what I did there was reading not experiments. But I loved it! Interestingly, I loved the actual lab, not the subject they were researching. Afterwards, in high school still, I did a one-week summer program called Light and plants. And that got me hooked. From then on I knew I wanted to study plants.

My first reaction to the 'Why not math?' question was that it was too abstract. It wasn't a question of what could I do, but what I wanted to do. Now that I thought about it some more, I don't think that is true. I think my biggest problem with math was that it was too easy. It wasn't challenging enough, all I had to do was solve the problems. And there was always a right answer, you just had to find it. Maybe if I had gotten deeper into math things would have been different... What led me into biology was all the unanswered questions, all the random puzzle pieces that don't quite fit together. And that what you think you know today might not be true tomorrow...

No comments:

Post a Comment