The Fox, the Duck, and the Survival of Science
How coping with my mom’s illness led me to think about my experience in the scientific community
This story was written by Co-Founder and CEO of Lyrical Science, Irena Schneider.
In the fall of 2015, I was a fox. I was rummaging around my desk, busy, frazzled, feeling that particular Ph.D. brand of existential angst. My colleagues and I were training to win the life of ideas. That life was forthcoming, I was sure, as we began patching together a rough quilt of teaching assistant wages, small scholarships and stipends so that we could write the next great book or inspire the next great debate. Like the foxes prancing around my London neighborhood, we became artful, frugal searchers, collectors and storers, hopping timidly but resolutely from one funding opportunity to another.
Of course, there was nothing like the gradual discovery that we were preparing for the Olympics, that there were two spots on the team and hundreds of us trying out. Our scavenging habits were only preparation for a fresh wave of post-doctoral scavenging. My colleagues and I philosophized that fall about the practice of survival we were bent on perfecting. We fantasized about ways to solve our funding and career troubles. In the odd mix of late-night caffeinated conversations, I was enchanted by the thought that if academia didn’t have enough resources to keep us, we could somehow resource ourselves. We didn’t have to condition ourselves to uninterrupted helplessness.
But things zig-zagged. The wave of inspiration soared and crashed. And everything crashed when I got news of my mother’s cancer diagnosis that fall. You never realize you’re a sitting duck until you get hit.
Suddenly I was back home in Baltimore with my mom, absorbing months of hospital visits and the emotional debris, which hit us like daggers. In an attempt to recover our sanity, I reconnected with an old mentor for whom I once interned in high school. Back then, I had helped Leslie distribute colorful greeting cards to brighten cancer patients’ lives as they went through debilitating treatments. A breast cancer survivor herself, Leslie became determined over the years to stop the disease from happening altogether to anyone else.
I didn’t properly understand the extent of Leslie’s resilience until she invited me and my mom to a fundraising reception for the Fetting Fund the following fall. Named after Dr. Fetting, their mutual oncologist, Leslie’s initiative offered his team of scientists at Johns Hopkins University an opportunity to vouch for their research on breast cancer prevention. The scientists presented their research on old school poster board and outlined the remedies and early detection methods they were developing to prevent the disease. Federal funding was mostly targeted for disease treatment rather than prevention, leaving the researchers out in the cold. But patients, survivors and their loved ones milled around the scientists. Donations flowed that evening, pushing the existing total endowment of the Fetting Fund to over several million dollars.
You never realize you’re a sitting duck until you get hit.
Who would have thought that we could keep the world turning despite the precarity we often face as scientists, patients, daughters, sons, friends? Two worlds came together in the battle against cancer that night: a world of scientists accustomed to scavenging for funds, who, despite everything, devote themselves wholeheartedly to research that can save our lives. And a world of unique individuals and their communities striving to re-emerge from the darkest depths of the human experience, ready to fight, to understand, and to live.
I was moved, knowing I had had a taste of both worlds. I understood the reality of academic survival even as a social scientist. But I desperately wanted to be part of scientific progress in other fields, simply as a human being with a mom, brother and friends.
After months of handwringing, my best friend Hyein and I started discussing science funding with researchers in the natural sciences in Baltimore, New York, Boston and across the UK. After a dozen interviews, we encountered different variations of the old story of academic precarity.
Scientists — particularly young scientists — are finding it increasingly difficult to justify their career paths as they face promised funding cuts from their governments and swelling competition for a number of jobs that has hardly changed since the 1980s. The vast majority of scientists with up to a decade of training will end up pursuing other careers, leaving us in an odd dilemma. We live in a society where too many people are equipped to cure cancer or fight climate change, but we are under-curing and under-fighting.
We live in a society where too many people are equipped to cure cancer or fight climate change, but we are under-curing and under-fighting.
The Promise of Science
Science has always been a powerful means of dealing with the unknown in nature. By reducing our vulnerability to disease or a hostile climate with increasing knowledge, we prolong our longevity and those of future generations. Over time, I’ve come to believe that even as ordinary citizens, we have the ability to repay scientists by reducing their unique vulnerabilities in the struggle for discovery.
Lyrical Science is dedicated to young scientists who wish to make a long-term impact in science. Just like musicians can make money off their fan-base, we want to help scientists do the same by sharing their research with the public. Money won’t solve everything, but it can do a lot for scientists who want to test risky but important ideas, build a research team, gain time to make key breakthroughs or climb the shaky career ladder. And it can make a difference for those of us on the other line, whose lives might — and do — depend on it.
In reflecting on her initiative, Leslie likes to say, “Don’t be a sitting duck.” Don’t wait for that cancer phone call before you realize you have a stake in scientific discovery. Thinking back to my own experiences and those of my colleagues, I only want to add: it’s time that we stop being fearful foxes, too. Too many of us are vying for a shrinking pot of money, but this isn’t the end of the road. We have fans and it’s time to find them.
Just like musicians can make money off their fan-base, we want to help scientists do the same by sharing their research with the public.
Lovers of Science, Unite!
Our journey is only beginning, and we’ll need plenty of feedback as we develop the beta platform to fund scientists through public engagement. To get involved today, we invite you visit our website and donate to Dr. Nazia Mehrban and Dr. Elizabeth Glennon, the first two scientists on our platform working on Alzheimer’s Disease and tissue engineering.
You can also get our weekly updates and hear from more scientists by joining our community here.
Finally, if you’d like to share a story of your own about what science means to you, record a short video message on your phone and share it with us on Twitter or Instagram (@hilyrical). We’ll feature a selection of the videos we receive on our Youtube channel and post our own video messages in response. Let’s spread the science love!