For the love of (superheros) and science

I have what I like to call a superhero complex! I believe that I have certain superpowers that most other people do not: for example, like the Flash I am fast - I walk fast, I work fast, I drive fast. Like DareDevil — though I am not blind - I do see problems differently than most people. And like Superman, I can bring people back from the dead, though not by circling the earth so fast that it spins in an opposite rotation. I’m fast but I’m not that fast!

This obsession with being a superhero began when I was young; my twin sister and I were very much into reading superhero comic books, watching superhero cartoons, and playing with superhero action figures.

One night we even dressed up in our own homemade superhero costumes and decided we were going to go out into the night and fight crime. After much debate however, we decided we would get into a lot of trouble if our parents found out we climbed out of our 2nd floor bedroom window and into the darkness below…it was a very short lived double life! Even now though I still love me a superhero flick — the Flash, Supergirl, the Marvel movies and some DC ones, Ben Afflack as Daredevil or Batman is just hard to watch…Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, not so much!

Looking back I think what drew me to superheros was a) the altruism of saving lives and b) the geeky science and technology that enhanced their super powers.

Today geeking out on superheros and science is cool, but when I was young being a geek was not a trait of mine that was particularly celebrated by my peers, and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I began to understand myself in a way that allowed me to embrace and own my individual geekiness! And therefore, it took me a really long time to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up; what I do now as am academic resuscitation scientist and innovator, I could have never even thought to have imagined when I was little.

Both of my parents came from blue collar, working class families. My mom is first generation Italian, her grandmother speaking no English even though she lived in this country for decades. Neither of my parents went to college. Neither of their parents went to college. In fact, of the 6 siblings between them, only one graduated college. Heck, my twin sister is still trying to finish her bachelors degree at age 40!

Me on the other hand, I have two Master’s degrees from an Ivy League institution and I am starting a doctoral program this fall. For all intents and purposes I am as alien to my family as Kal-El (aka Superman) was to the Kents or Kara Zor-El (aka Supergirl) was to the Danvers. An alien among humans.

Though I didn’t have the advanced educational guidance from my parents I did have a lot of encouragement and support. My mom instilled in me a love of outer space — to this day anytime a rocket is live-streamed blasting off she texts me all excited, asking if I am watching! It is darn cute (DC)!

Then there is my dad; he was and still is a master carpenter — the man can do math in his head like no one I have ever known; he can look at a structure and figure out how to build it, and in no time there it stands! It really is something to Marvel!

For reasons unknown to me even now though, I never even considered studying any of the science subjects that I was enamored with in my youth. And it was during high school that my fascination switched from quote-unquote “science” to “saving lives”.

While in high school I became an emergency medical technician. I loved getting up in the middle of the night, putting on my uniform and racing out to help others in distress. It was almost the same thing as dressing up in a superhero costume and going to fight crime except I didn’t have to climb out of my bedroom window, and I wasn’t going to get in trouble for doing it!

Once again though, I don’t know why I didn’t pursue this line of study after high school. Instead, I skipped college, and started working for a number of non-profit organizations, trying to find my path and passion! Once I finally did go to college I switched majors more than a couple times. I really am a bit slow on the introspective uptake!

It wasn’t until I saw an advertisement for a nurse research program at a local university that I remembered my passion for science and saving lives and it all clicked! I became a critical care nurse resuscitating more people than I care to remember, and then a resuscitation scientist performing the science that now informs the CPR guidelines that I have been honored to help write.

Performing biomedical research once again sparked that fascination inside of me for all things science — as well the rest of the STEM and STEAM fields. Over the past decade I have dedicated my life to spreading their good word to the masses — its like my own personal bat signal. And last year when science was under attack, just like the Justice League, I came together with many other dedicated scientists, science communicators, educators and friends of science around the globe, to take a stand against evil by organizing the March for Science.

These past years, living my passion and purpose has been tremendously satisfying and fun! But as Uncle Ben Parker said to Peter Parker (aka Spiderman): “With great power comes great responsibility.” I firmly believe that as science superheros we have a responsibility to make a difference locally and beyond, and like Professor X, to teach the next generation of Gifted Youngsters. And even if you don’t have superpowers, if you have science you can still save the world.

Yes, it took me a really long time to find my origin story, but in life, as in research, there is never just one path. Today I get to work with a team of passionate colleagues, with cool technology, in what amounts to my own superhero lair, and in the process I also get to save lives. It really is like being a true superhero after all!