I wanted to be a scientist
What did five-year-old you want to be when you grew up? I see this question pop up on twitter every so often, or rather the question is often would five-year old you be proud of where you are now. I think it’s hard to judge your five-year-old self when you’re an adult because the world looks a whole lot less polished and magical when you’re an adult. In my experience as you transition to an adult that magic and wonder is slowly replaced with dread, anxiety, and mostly doubt. Imposter syndrome is a real thing that many people, including myself, deal with.
All that to say that remembering what you would think as a child is hard when you’re using the lens of an adult. We sometimes forget that what impressed us as a child may, or may not, be what we consider impressive as an adult. Growing up, I mostly just wanted to be an adult. I wanted to be independent and get away from the abusive family I was born into. Maybe that’s not the magical answer that I would have as a child, but hindsight is 20/20 and the adult lens I am forced to view the world through is not nearly as flattering as the child lens.
Of course, five-year-old me didn’t realize yet that families weren’t supposed to be like that. So while I can say for certain that I wished as a child for a world where families weren’t abusive, I didn’t know they actually existed. So if I asked five-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up he probably would’ve said a scientist. From a young age sci-fi movies captured my imagination in a way that few things really could. Ever since I can remember, when an adult asked me what I wanted to be, the answer was a scientist, obviously.
The real question was what kind of scientist did I want to be and that answer wasn’t always so clear cut. I remember wanting to build robots thanks to games and movies, mostly I liked the idea of Ironman and creating exoskeletons that gave people superhuman abilities. There was also a brief (or maybe not so brief) phase where I really wanted to genetically engineer humans, cure diseases, give us super cool abilities, you know the usual stuff you want to do as a kid. But mostly I just liked the idea of being an explorer, finding something new and doing something for the first time that no one has done or thought could be done. I wanted to be the first at something, not just find my own mountain to climb, but climb the mountain that they said would be impossible to climb.
Well I guess you could say that I never really lost sight of that goal, because here I am a few decades later and I still want to build robots and make super humans, or at least help people and restore function. Some of this I’ve already done too, I built a robot that I am incredibly proud of! In particular the knee joint, which is arguably the most complex joint in the human body, is still is the most advanced knee joint in publication so far (at least by objective measures of sliding/rolling ratio, moment arm, energy saving, compactness, etc.) which I think is pretty awesome if you ask me.
But I’ll be honest, I have for years wondered if my work made me an actual “scientist” or if I was still trying to be one. Like I said, imposter syndrome is a very real thing and as someone still in school I’ve always wrestled with the idea that I’m not a real scientist. I also haven’t been incredibly successful, I mean the robot is great, but it never really got a whole lot of attention from the community so it’s a mixed bag. The stuff I’ve been working on now is really interesting and may or may not get a lot of attention (not that I need attention to be successful, but it’s a publish or perish community and I haven’t published much yet despite having a few million papers I’m working on (okay, like four, but it feels like a few million).
However, the question posed at the start of today’s post was would five-year-old me be proud of where I am and I think the answer is yes. I’ve been working on some amazing things and done stuff that he would’ve never even dreamed possible. I’m proud of the work I’ve done and I think he would be too. I’m fairly certain he would be convinced I was a real scientist, even if I have my doubts. I think he would be particularly interested in the stuff I’ve been doing lately with electrical stimulation and neuromodulation. Things he didn’t know existed, and frankly until very recently, neither did I. So overall I think I would make young me proud of where I am and who I’ve become. A PhD was never something I thought would be possible as a kid, mostly because I came from a poor family who never attended higher education, so how would I be able to do it?
So yeah, five-year-old me would be in fucking awe of the things I’ve done and it’s good to remember that now, when I struggle to find my way through life.
I guess this would be a good time for the surprise twist in the story though. For those of you following along I was offered a job in my Co-PI’s lab doing research. I would still be doing the work for my PhD and I’m (hopefully) only two years away from finishing, so I wouldn’t walk away from it even for a super cool research job like that (more here)(and here). I guess I need to stop thinking I’m not a “real” scientist since I have the job officially now and I’ll be starting in just a few weeks. Yep, that’s right I could’ve given the news in its own post, but I thought this would be a fun way to do it. Mostly because I finally feel like a real scientist and not just someone pretending to be one (at least in this moment, that will probably change).
I’ve been dealing with a lot of depression lately and while the news doesn’t do anything to help, it does take a lot of the stress off from the waiting to see what happens portion of the application. I don’t know that the depression will ever get better, or that I’ll ever feel like I’m doing something that I can be proud of. Depression is hard like that, you never feel good enough, or at least I don’t. Most of the time I feel like I’m just a few steps away from being a total failure in life and wondering why I even exist. It’s a weird dynamic to live with, especially when I do something particularly interesting/cool and have to contend with the fact that I don’t feel like I did the thing myself or that if I could do it than obviously anyone could do it and I just got lucky.
So maybe it’s enough to know that the child version of me would be proud, at least for today.