3 May 2011

A Light in the Wilderness

Some people are born knowing their purpose; some find it as they go.  Some know which path they mean to take from the outset, but set out at night, stumble about in the bushes, drop their flashlights, stub their toes on rocks, greet the dawn with joy and relief, and discover, much to their astonishment, that they've ended up exactly where they meant to get in the first place.

I'm the third kind.

I was reading at age two and started making up my own stories shortly after (the one about how the dog unwrapped and ate my brother's chocolate bar was true, I swear).  I wrote and illustrated my first picture book when I was six.  At ten, I started a novel, and spent most of my middle school years carrying a notebook from class to class, scribbling every chance I got.  I knew, the way some people know their age or eye colour, that I was meant to write.

Which was all very well until twelfth grade, when people (and by people I mean my eminently practical father) started asking me how I was planning on actually making a living.  His exact words, I believe: "Dreams are great, kid, but you'd better have a backup plan."


I didn't have the first idea where to get one of those!  After all, I'd only ever wanted to be a writer.  Panic ensued until, not surprisingly, I found the answer in a book - Joseph Wambaugh's The Blooding, the true story of the first murders solved by DNA fingerprinting.  I was completely fascinated, by the science of genetics in general and this forensic application in particular.  Which is how I found myself, four years later, with a BSc in Honors Genetics.

This is the part where it starts to go sideways. 

There are jobs available to BSc's, after all, and plenty of the type that qualify as backup plans.  I even applied for one - heading up Alberta's newly created Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab.  When I came in second to a guy with a PhD, graduate school seemed like a perfectly reasonable option.

I knew within six months that I'd seriously miscalculated.  Some people love research, thriving on the problems and challenges and frustrations (oh vast universe of cursing, crying, hair-pulling frustrations).  For me it was a interminable, Sisyphean task of unrelenting misery - the kind of misery, I realize now,  due to the denial of self resulting from a stubborn refusal to realize I was stumbling around in the wrong forest, never mind on the wrong path.  I made it through on sheer willpower, and the day I received my degree (or passport to freedom, as the case may be) was one of the happiest of my life.

American Museum of Natural History
I'm still not sure how I managed to pull a Governor General's Medal out of the deal, but I took it and ran.  And discovered, to my total astonishment, that I don't hate science after all - I love science.  I just hated doing it.

So here I am, a budding children's science writer with a PhD in wildlife population genetics.  A PhD which has not only taught me how to ferret out obscure facts, but how to share them with others - how to find the story behind the data.  See Dad, I told you decade's worth of post secondary education wouldn't go to waste!

Lindsey Carmichael
lindsey (at) foxtalk (dot) ca

1 comment:

Uncle Ted said...

Aww, still think you should have been a short-order cook!