For many of us, an education does not come easy. The math and the sciences even less so; linear, rigorous, and unambiguous in their outcomes. Especially for those of us that are under represented in the sciences–because of gender, age, race, ability, or class status–sometimes its difficult to feel like we measure up.
I remember one of the first conversations I had with Mary Ann, when I had just begun my studies in mathematics and the sciences, and she told me something that I didn’t understand at first: It only gets harder. I laughed, mostly because I couldn’t imagine how that was supposed to console me in the throws of studying for my first calculus exam. But she’d caught my attention, so why not keep listening to this sagely woman with the long white hair?
Those of us that learn how to work hard, now, in the beginning; those of us that learn to appreciate the beauty of problems that we are only still struggling to understand; those of us who develop a work ethic that enables us to carry on in spite of the doubt that plagues us; we’re the lucky ones.
Because as we continue into ever more sophisticated levels of scientific inquiry, when we begin the actual research that is the labor of science itself, when we begin to ask those most beautiful questions, there will not be any easy answers. There will not be a multiple choice test with a clear numerical result. And these struggles–with grades, with concepts, with study techniques, with balancing “life” and “school”–these struggles prepare us for those challenges, as well as those breakthroughs.
When I returned to school at 22, a young man of color from a low income community, I hardly seemed like the “science type.” I was a high school drop out with zero math skills, didn’t know the first thing about landing a research position or applying to scholarships–and that’s to say nothing about the social and institutional barriers that keep people of color out of the sciences.
Mary Ann never trivialized any of these obstacles, but she showed me how my creativity and determination could be more influential. And she didn’t just do that through emotional support or showing me how elegant and rewarding scientific insight could be; she got me NSF scholarships which allowed me to work less and concentrate on my studies; she walked me through every step of the application process and got me into prestigious research positions in national labs; and she provided me with a clear set of expectations about how to get–and stay–on the science track.
Transferring from a community college to an Ivy League institution would have been impossible without her support, without her determination, and her intuitive understanding. She believed in me when I didn’t know how to, and taught me how to do the same.