I’m Shy, But My Science Isn’t.

The process of experimenting — and persevering through frustration and doubt — gave me my voice.

Photo by Jon Bunting/Flickr, Creative Commons

Every year from 3rd grade until 12th grade, I went to Music & Arts, a store that rents instruments to students, to pick up music and exchange my violin for a larger size. Plastered on the outside window next to the door was a picture of a middle school girl wrapped around her cello. The life sized poster read, “I’m shy, but my cello isn’t.” I guess the fact that I related to a poster on a violin store made me a class A nerd. I was painfully shy. I played the violin. I did not play it stridently. Playing an instrument did not help me express myself. I continued to play the violin at school and for the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. A common complaint from George, the conductor of our youth orchestra and Philly Pops cellist, was that I never played loud enough.

I buried myself in school work. Often I’d escape by writing little fiction stories. I never would have seen myself as majoring in science. The idea of considering a future as a scientist and physician scared me. What if I, a 10-year-old, did not make the right decision with a patient? And then the patient died? This was too much for me. There was no way that I was going to take on that responsibility.

I even disliked my science classes. By middle school, all we had been offered was environmental science studies. I was even chosen to present at the Montgomery County science fair. I reluctantly went and gave it my best, as was expected from me. I scored well in my math and science classes and my teachers told me I should think about dedicating myself to science, which I completely dismissed. Stratus clouds are cool, but they aren’t that cool. I had already decided I wanted to be a teacher, just not a science teacher. My school’s “Career Path” test indicated two potential options: music teacher or prison guard.

Eventually I took cell biology in 9th grade. Mr. Heine, my teacher, was tirelessly energetic. He used his unique voice to make sound effects in class and he used stories about himself and his life to explain biology to us. During this time, I started to consider myself a science person.

This gross stuff was cool. Eventually the surgeons invited me to scrub into several surgeries…

Let’s jump forward to senior year. In order to graduate from my high school, we needed to complete 150 service hours. I needed my final 25 hours, so I looked into the possibilities working at a hospital. I applied to volunteer and it just happened that there was an opening in the Operating Room. My job was to take specimens from the surgery into the Pathology Lab. Specimens included breast tissue, urine samples, lymph nodes, etc. As a high schooler, this gross stuff was cool. Eventually the surgeons invited me to scrub into several surgeries with the other doctors and medical students.

This hospital has a reputation of having particularly friendly staff and that was what I observed exactly. During the surgery, the surgeon and nurses offered a kindness that was in itself healing. They often put their hands on the shoulders of the patient who was under anesthesia or who was just waking up and would not remember the kind words and gentle touch. There was much respect and an unspoken kindness, which astounded me.

I remained shy, and the nurses often teased me with another cute young man who worked in the OR, only to watch my face turn beet red. Over time, the head volunteer coordinator recommended that I apply for a position in a high school research opportunity. This program was designed to have high school seniors and juniors in a lab and where they could design their own experiments. We learned about cell proliferation in cancer patients and in fruit flies. We learned lab skills and then were let loose to design our own experiments after screening several natural drugs on the fruit flies. I screened several drugs and set upon one that I felt caused problems in the flies’ eggs.

Photo by National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health

I struggled with designing the experiment. It seemed that the other 14 students could move and think faster and several of them were able to get help from their private school teachers. I was left feeling lost and inadequate. Designing an experiment from different techniques like western blots, gel electrophoresis, and other procedures was difficult. In high school I did not understand what many of these procedures showed or how they worked. After countless “I give ups,” followed by my mom telling me that I could “make a comeback,” I designed an experiment. I designed what I felt was a simple experiment. Although it was simple, I ended up getting significant results, after messing up the procedure a couple times. At the end of the program, we presented our results to a group of scientists and doctors, a nerve-racking experience. After it was done, I found out that my results were great, and that the doctor whose procedure I had used had designed the procedure himself. Moreover, he was planning on publishing and including me as an author, because the experiment carried out so well. Of course I was ecstatic. Getting published in high school is a big deal. He will be finishing up the publication soon. I recently got an email from the American Chemical Society.

I found that science could speak for me. My experience with the research was difficult and a struggle. But it was worth it. I found that I was able to speak to people more confidently and I felt proud of myself. Since then, I have become better-spoken and I have found that I actually love to talk. Science gave me my voice. Just as the Music & Arts poster told me years before, I may be shy, but my science isn’t.

Abby O’Keefe is a sophomore biochemistry molecular biology major at Ursinus College and a fellow for Ursinus’s Center for Science and the Common Good.

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