Friday, October 06, 2006

Thank God Someone Studied Science in College

Yesterday was a marathon day-long excursion to JHU for my weekly medical check-in. I'm working with a woman who is doing really cool research into my wee little rare disease. She's awesome. Certainly because she's doing cool things that probably won't help me, but will definitely help others like me in the future; but also because she is SO D*MN SMART.

I was a History and Languages person in college. I have one good friend who is a biochemist. The rest of us were pre-law, humanities types. My poor friend is the one we send those cool science links at Dubious Quality to, with some header like, "You'll understand this better than me! Isn't it cool?!" My whole life I've deferred on the knowledge of math and science, since neither was an area in which I excelled. Only now that I'm exposed to so much molecular/genetic information in my medical adventures do I realize that I actually do have the capacity to understand it, if only on some basic level. Which leads me to wonder why I completely avoided it in school. Which leads me to the answer: because I got better grades in history and languages. Which leads me to a rant (doesn't everything?): If we really want to inspire learning, how can we simultaneously hammer kids with the need to get good grades, maintain their GPAs, get into fantastic colleges and grad schools, all the while passing the 174 federally-required standardized tests to determine if their teachers are teaching them and therefore if their school receives funding? I took Chemistry in high school, and got a B simply because the teacher was a nice man who knew I was working my tail off, even if I still couldn't figure out how to count electrons. I specifically avoided science in college because I knew it would kill my GPA. I took the one required course, got a C, and spent the next three years trying to score A's in every other class so I could still graduate summa or please-god-even-Magna. At every level, I was focused on my grades rather than on learning something cool, expanding my intellectual boundaries, and perhaps allowing myself to fall in love with science, if only on a basic level. I look back with regret.

Fast forward 15 years later, and I'm learning (because now I'm personally motivated) about things I always assumed I wouldn't understand, being a humanities/liberal arts person and all. It was an excuse back then; a way to keep doing what I was good at in order to achieve the seemingly-meaningful goal of a high GPA, while missing out on the opportunity to discover if maybe, perhaps, just possibly something science-related could capture my imagination.

It's a shame. Especially in the context of the current educational climate, where teaching-to-the-test is a federally-mandated necessity, where school is not about opening and inspiring young minds beyond their preconceived boundaries, but rather a means for producing students who meet all the requirements on paper (Look! A 4.0 GPA! Penn will HAVE to take him now! And our school's numbers will go up!) but who have been robbed of the chance to try something they may NOT be good at, to find something interesting and meaningful even if it won't lead to a career and a salary, to explore a field of study they may one day be in a position to fund or support--and will therefore understand its value even if it is not their life's work.

When I see the unbelievable work being done on gene therapy and disease prevention, especially for something that affects my life on a daily basis, I can only be grateful that somewhere in America, a young woman was encouraged to study science.

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