Letting Go of the Once & Future Self

Starting my freshman year in college, I kept all of my class notes, organized in binders and arranged on shelves. They were all nearly the same: the course syllabus on the front as if it were a table of contents (with check marks as each week or assignment ticked by), followed by the the exams (as if it were an executive summary), followed by my notes in loose-leaf paper (with the dates marked in the upper right-hand corners), then handouts, then homework, then quizzes. The binders were color-coded by field: Chemistry – Black; Evolution Ecology & Organismal Biology – Green; Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics – Blue; Immunology – Red; Math/Calc – Burgundy; Non-science (general ed. curriculum) – light blue or yellow. They were not organized by date, but rather by clustered together by field. I carried this through graduate school and kept all these notes from 1999 to 2015.

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The stack of papers that I unceremoniously threw into the recycle bin on February 28, 2015, thus saying goodbye to the future Professor Tatro

I am not sure why I started doing this, I think that it started because during the first quarter, I felt like I had put a lot of effort into organizing these materials. They exist in physical form. The words, symbols, equations, and diagrams represented my newly acquired knowledge and skills … it would have felt weird or destructive to throw them away. And so I kept them from one quarter to the next. Then from freshman year to sophomore year, and so on … lugging around boxes of binders from dorm to Mom’s house to dorm to apartment to apartment from city to city and from timezone to timezone. These binders came to represent my identity as a scientist.

I actually thought that one day they might be useful. I collected articles or essays that I thought were great representations of a concept. Examples are: clippings of Stephan Jay Gould essays and early articles by Jarrod Diamond on the concept of the meme … things I thought that I might refer to or use if I were to one day teach a college course in biology (any field, I thought). I kept the syllabi, the exams, the quizzes, the homework … because I wanted to one day be a college professor and refer back to the material that had served me so well in forming my identity as a scientist to help me in shaping the minds and spirits of the next generation.

Events happen. Events do not happen. Time marches on. I became an assistant adjunct professor at a medical research university in the department of psychiatry … but it was not the life that I had envisioned during the 9 years of creating the library of materials and I was not the person I had envisioned myself to be. I wasn’t the genial professor strolling into a lecture hall to inspire and amaze rows of brains ready to learn about the scientific method. I was struggling from grant application to grant application. Cobbling together papers published in middling and low-ish tier journals (never bottom rung, thank goodness) from data gathered using outdated and barely relevant scientific methods. This. Wasn’t. Working.

So in 2015, I took a job outside of academia. At a non-profit membership organization with a laudable mission to advance science. I had to say good-bye to Professor Tatro. I had to let go of the future self who I had built during a decade of study and research. I had to say good bye to the genial grey-beard that inspired a generation of students to pursue truth through skeptical inquiry, that contributed new and interesting scholarly works through incremental but sound experimentation, that challenged the bonds of ignorance which hinders the full realization of human potential, that contributed substantively to the direction and future of venerated institution. In essence, I had to kill my future self because he failed to become.

I don’t know whether it was the set of circumstances which led to this demise — the decline of funding for biomedical research, the insane job market for professorships, my sub-sub-specialty becoming decreasingly relevant, my pedigree not being good enough — or personal failings — not learning to game of the system sooner, not doing conferences & meetings right, not choosing the right advisor, not choosing the right projects, not working hard enough. Probably, the reason that future Professor Tatro failed to materialize is a combination of internal and external factors.

I had to let go of the future Professor Tatro when I left academia. The act of throwing out all of those binders, the physical representation of my scholarly identity, was letting go of the future academic. The future me died that day. A new future me was born.

I am not sure what the new future me is like, yet. I am scared. I think the new future me will work in the non-profit or publishing sectors. The new future me will make a positive impact on the world by advancing science through helping to decide which new projects or initiatives get attention and funding, by bringing scientists together to solve problems, and by calling attention to problems that are worth solving. I am scared, I think, because the old future me took about nine years to gestate. I knew him very well and had a good sense that he was going to be a good person. The new future me has only been in gestation for about nine months. I don’t know him yet. All I have is hope that he will be a good person.

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