Way back in September I had a conversation with Ben Lillie, a writer for TED and director/producer of The Story Collider, a delightful podcast about the human stories behind science. I adore it because it brings forth the different kinds of people who work in and around science. It’s one of the mainstays in my podcast subscriptions because I have a fascination with how people got into science.
We spoke about science stories. I love reading them. I get paid to write science news. However I struggle with the most important science story of all – my own. I am invited to classrooms and science outreach events to tell my story by people who have painstakingly put some pieces of the jigsaw together that fit in with their needs. I don’t mind at all if parts of my story resonates but what about all of it?
I suppose this has been what I have thought about since early September as I have struggled to collect my thoughts into a blog post. I am better at telling other people’s stories and events. As I have meandered through the fog of my science story over the past two months I have realised that my science story is one that needs telling and one that does inspire. More importantly I have accepted that my science story affects greatly how I do science and communicate science.
Thank you Ben Lillie. This is the blog post that I said I would write. It took me longer than expected.
I was born into a family with a non-English speaking background in an English speaking country. I grew up in small towns far away from the city, 3,500km north of it to be exact. That’s around 2200 miles away from the nearest city. This was a time before the internet reached homes. Having television reception in the home was like getting the super fast broadband today. We didn’t even have a phone in the house until I was 9 years old.
I will never be able to thank my teacher Mrs Knight enough for her patience in getting through to a stubborn four year old girl who had declared the English language to be stupid. It could not have been easy but it is because of this that I have been able to take part in learning at school. Looking back on my early school reports, I did not show much promise. I was average in most things and at the beginning, I was below average in reading and numeracy skills.
Given this start in life, the odds are stacked against me to finish school and head to university, let alone become a scientist.
This is where my parents came to the fore. My dad when he wasn’t working night shift would always be reading something, newspapers, magazines and maps. My mum always had a recipe book around and was always jotting things down as she worked out how to prepare an authentic Singaporean dish with limited variety of ingredients. The nearest Asian Grocer was 3500km away. They always made sure I finished my reading homework which was to read aloud from a book no matter how much I hated it.
I remember when I asked my dad what he was reading in the newspaper. Instead of summarising, he would read snippets of the newspaper to me. I suspect he read the parts that would interest me because I always found it fascinating what people around the world got up to when all I did was to go to school. Gradually I progressed to reading the newspaper by myself and discovering books.
As this is a moment of being truthful, I will admit to loathing science in primary school, all seven years of it. I never found it fun. It was hard. I despised science. There were unpronounceable words. It was something for the smart kids. I never got selected to be in accelerated science programs. Science in primary school made me feel dumb and it was something I had to work really hard at. Teachers assuming me to be naturally brilliant or to be quite dull in science compounded the issue.
At some point during the last few years of primary school, I became aware that my grandfather with minimal English skills had enrolled in a formal horticultural course. He explained that he wanted to learn how to grow plants well and wasn’t interested in the exams or qualifications. He wanted to learn to do something in his life better. This has always stayed in my mind. It’s possible to study and learn for pleasure. I didn’t realise that this would become a life defining moment for me.
I started to add popular science books to my reading choices. Books that had been written so that the science was easy to understand that I could read at my own pace and stop to look up words in a dictionary. I was able to explore pieces of the scientific world. I was lucky to have parents who let me read and emphasised the preciousness of education even though all I was concerned with was doing well enough to stay with my friends.
It was a heavily pregnant woman who encouraged me to explore science and made me feel confident enough to take risks and make mistakes in science to learn from. Hell, it was even okay to mispronounce scientific terms so long as you learned what they meant and pronounced them correctly the next time. Sniggering and exasperated looks were replaced with patience and enthusiasm. She was my Year 8 science teacher. I do not know what my life would have turned out had I not been in that class. It was in that class I discovered what parts of science were fun for me.
From that first day in that science class, I haven’t stopped taking risks in science to do new things. I may not have any sort of award to show for my work in science or have a paper in a prestigious scientific journal that only a few will read. I have something that no one can take away from me. I have a sense of enjoyment in science that I share freely. I come from a background where people have shared their knowledge and sense of fun. This has shaped who I am and how I do things.
I get frustrated with myself if I am unable to explain a concept to someone who is desperately trying to understand. I will make the time to explain it in as many ways as possible and when that doesn’t work, I seek help. If I am not of any help in the learning process than at the very least I can facilitate it. This sharing of information isn’t limited to classrooms and lessons. This happens in workplaces and laboratories. Learning new things is vital to achieving goals, especially the difficult ones.
I have a firm belief that part of doing science is communicating scientific work to everyone and anyone who may be interested. That communication should also be open and inviting. The effect of scientific work is not confined to the hallowed halls and rooms of research institutions. It impacts upon every part of everyday life.
As I have come to grips with my personal science story, I have become ever more thoughtful in my approach in science communication whether it be in science outreach or talking about a science topic with friends. In recognising where my approach and thoughts have developed from, I have become much better about talking about science because I know why I keep talking.
I want people to have fun with me.
What’s your science story?