The fuel of discovery
In my professional life, I’m a researcher, scientist, and inventor. And with these identities come a lot of stereotypes: the mad professor, the absent-minded professor, the ivory tower ideologue. And while I dislike how stereotypes mask the much greater diversity of scholars, many of these particular stereotypes happen to be true of me. I’m am a bit nerdy. I am a bit obsessive about facts. I often like ideas more than I like people. I have an irrepressible, wandering curiosity. I wake up with new ideas, I ponder new ideas in the shower, I spend all day at work thinking and talking about ideas, write about ideas on the bus home, and yes, when I’m sleeping, I dream about ideas. And at least in my case, all of this obsession with ideas is a central part of being able to do my job well.
About two years ago, however, when I finally accepted that I was transgender, many of these aspects of my personality have been muted. In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Coming out very publicly was amazing and exhausting. Transitioning socially is full of insecurity. Every single day since accepting myself has been a massive effort to sorting out my gender in private and in public—how I see myself, how I accept myself, how others see me, what to wear, how to talk, how to be—and ultimately, how not to care. On some days, my gender transition triggers a few moments of reflection, or a ponderous moment. On other days, I wake up wrecked with guilt, self-loathing, and depression, incapacitated by a lifetime of internalized transphobia.
But this daily emotional labor, as ultimately affirming and live-saving as it has been, hasn’t really been compatible with being the researcher, scientist, and inventor that I’ve always been. Trying to achieve at the same level I always have just hasn’t been possible. It’s revealed the delicate life conditions that are necessary for me to be creative, care about ideas, and pursue discovery.
In this post, I want to identify and deconstruct these conditions. I largely want to do this for selfish reasons, helping me find my way back to a more stable state of scholarly being. But perhaps by sharing some of my own personal experiences, other researchers might be able to better identify the basic needs that are central to making them great researchers as well.
One of the first and most critical fuels for my ability to discover is interest. My interests have been shaped over a lifetime, by innumerable experiences and people. And in my transition, it’s not that my interests have disappeared. But they have been displaced. Rather than find myself listening to podcasts about software engineering, learning a new programming language, or reading the latest research paper, I find myself reading books about gender, lurking on gender-related subreddits, and writing more about my gender experiences. All of my other interests are still there, and when I’m focused at work, they’re just as motivating as they’ve always been. But at all other times of day, they are latent. All of that pondering in the shower and while asleep is no longer about the next research paper I want to write. It’s nightmares about being a victim of trans violence, anxiety about what I’m going to wear to an important meeting, or feckless fussing about a gender slur. Being in transition has taken left less space for my research interests, because I’m too busy understanding myself, and accepting myself.
Whereas interest is something I view as sustained, maintained, and evolving over time, I view curiosity as something that is highly situational. Ever since I was a child, just going on a walk would fill my mind with wonder. How does a bird know what’s edible? Why do flowers have color? Why I can I see color? How do children at the playground know how to resolve conflicts? How come bathrooms never run out of water? To me, the world has always been an endless font of curiosities. Since accepting my transness, however, the world is wondrous in very different ways. Rather than pondering questions about what I’m seeing, I’m pondering questions about how people are seeing me. This puts my attention on myself, and people’s reaction to me, and less on the nuanced vibrancy of the world. And attention on me, at least for my interests, doesn’t really translate into the next great idea.
Unlike curiosity (which is momentary) and interest (which is cultivated), I view passion as a fuel that powers my long-term research questions and visions. I’m passionate about computing. I’m passionate about learning and identity. I’m passionate about justice and a world that embraces difference. I want to create a world that invests in these ideas and do that by inspiring others to. But my transition has taken a lot of that long-term vision and truncated it in a surprising way. Because so many of my fears, stressors, and anxieties are in the present—a deadname here, a wrong pronoun, a bad morning in front of the mirror, a hurtful conversation with a stranger—it’s very hard for me to give attention to the future right now. I spend a lot of my time worried about the next minute, the next hour, the next day. Next week is the distant future, next year is unknowable, and the next decade is an impossibility. At least right now, my attention has to be on these short term things, while I adjust to the waves of new experiences that come with being trans and a woman in society.
Discovery requires time. Not just long-term commitments of time in the future, but also long periods within a day to focus on the nuances and complexities of research. Most researchers are no stranger to having too little of this kind of time, and the harm that can do to our discoveries. But my transition has brought with it so many unexpected demands on my time. Seeing a therapist regularly. Getting labs done. Meeting with my doctor. Dozens of hours of electrolysis to remove some facial hair, one hair, needle, and shock at a time. Surgical consultations. Time to rest my fragile vocal cords as I practice my voice. Time to recover from emotionally challenging days. And of course, all the extra time it takes to be a woman in western civilization, whether it’s waiting in line for a bathroom, doing hair and makeup, trying to find clothing that fits.
Discovery requires stability. So much so that we’ve structured entire institutions like academia to isolate researchers from the unpredictable pivots of the world. As a tenured professor, I’m mostly insulated from marketplaces, I can usually treat politics as something to ponder rather than something that might threaten my family, and I can count on a salary that’s contingent only on the public’s commitment to learning and progress, not the whims of the consumer or student. But a social gender transition is destabilizing, emotionally and politically. Most of the time, I don’t have to rationally fear for my life. But there are times on the street or on the bus where I’m pretty sure I should. When I lived as a man, I didn’t have to fear losing my job or my civil rights. But as a trans person, I have to read headlines everyday that threaten my safety, my civil rights, and my ability to safely travel the world. When I suppressed my gender dysphoria living as a man, I was free to project a persona unencumbered by emotion. But now that I’m finally living as me, on some days, I’m paralyzed by sorrow, regret, and self-loathing that’s far too slow to overcome. Being a tenured professor insulates me from many of the instabilities in the world, but not these instabilities. They inject a kind of stress that is a friction to discovery.
I know that the challenges of transition will pass. It’s only been 5 months since I came out. Every trans person that shares their story with me describes the first few years of social transition as a kind of second puberty, full of far too many changes for any one person to integrate so quickly. And so I don’t fear that I’ve lost my fuel for discovery forever. I just struggle knowing that right now, I’m emotionally unstable, low on time, and too distracted to be as passionate, curious, and interested as I usually am. I know I have to use what limited fuel I have wisely. And I’m pretty sure I am: I’m still raising funding, I’m still advising Ph.D. students, and I’m still publishing papers. To anyone looking from afar, I probably look just as productive and successful as usual. It’s just taking a lot more work to maintain that, and my experience of it is more muted and distracted.
Part of what gives me confidence that this is temporary is that the impact of transition is a lot like the impact of other major events that have happened in my life. Whenever I’ve moved to a new home, I lost time and stability. When I first became a parent, I lost time, stability, and passion. When my first marriage was crumbling at the end of grad school, I lost all of these fuels, I needed a year to reconnect to research. But each time, I recharged, and found my way back.
I suspect that others have similar experiences with other life traumas that inevitably come—natural disaster, death of a loved one, cancer, disability, disease. All of these traumas, and their clear potential impact on discovery reveal how the human pursuit of knowledge is by far one of the most privileged things we can do. Only when every need in a researcher’s life is just so—food, shelter, safety, love, belonging, recognition, freedom, self-esteem—is it really possible to focus on ideas so abstract, so foundational, so progressive, so ambitious. That I’ve been able to be a researcher, fully-fueled for so long, is a sign of my immense privilege. And while I’m short on fuel for now, my large reserves are sure to last until I find my way back onto the road, ready to resume the incredible journey of discovery.