Friday, July 3, 2009

"S" is for Scientist

I have always wanted to call myself a scientist but have hesitated or been reluctant due to what I perceived were the requirements of which I knew I did not met. I cannot recall names of things, including people, no matter how many times I repeat them. Some stick, for example eucalyptus elongates has always stuck with me – and I learned it from a landscape design class I took in high school 35 years ago, and of course sequoia sempervirens, the giant redwood of which I spent a lot of time working on while getting my undergrad in Botany from Humboldt State. But most of the time I struggle with the terms, formulas, and calculations, and so never thought I could really call myself a scientist.

It has only been lately that I realize what makes someone a scientist, and it is not those things. They are helpful and make it easier, but that is not, fundamentally, the requirements for the designation of scientist. It is instead the passionate desire to understand the “why” of something. Not to accept that it “just does”, but to pursue the possible mechanism responsible. That is what makes a scientist - this want to find an answer, the intellectual curiosity and fascination with what happens from the macro to the microscopic.

I have had the privilege, due to the generosity of my in-laws, to make up for my lack of faith in myself by going after my Masters. I settled 30 years ago for a BA, not a BS, in Botany. The lack of that “S” at the end, as silly as it may seem, always bothered me, but it was not until recently that I understood why. I failed myself when I took the easy way to a degree. Without the “S” my degree, my knowledge, my ability to put myself in the same room with my intellectual peers was always cheapened by my full understanding that I took the easy way. It is not the “A” or the “S” that matters, it is that I did not put the time into it, I know that and anyone that looks at me would know that too.

So with little confidence that I could do it, I got up the courage to try. But… know that permanent record that they always warned you about when you were young and in school? Well there really is such a thing and they can use it to keep you out. I was not a stellar student in high school or college and my stupid-stinking permanent record will not let me forget that. So to get into Grad School I would need someone to believe in me and give me a chance. That person, through the recommendation of my good friend Annamarie, was Professor KC Donnelly, the head of the EOH department at the Texas A&M HSC - School of Rural Public Health.

Dr. Donnelly passed away this Wednesday, a victim of esophageal cancer. He was five years older than me but light years ahead in knowledge and in my opinion the epitome of what a scientist is. I am working to finish my thesis, of which he never got to see my work. I emailed him while he was in the hospital and sent him all my drafts. I have no idea if he got to see it, and it really does not matter, what I wanted him to know is that what I have produced is the culmination of what he provided me an opportunity to achieve. When it is all said and done I will have added that “S” and I will not be able to thank him for that by defending my thesis in front of him and then shaking his hand at graduation.

I will miss having that opportunity and I will miss him. He is what I hope to call myself - what I can now call myself – a scientist.

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