Science communication

2019.01.06

What is your story?

I participated in a Story Collider event at the ASLO Summer Meeting in June 2018. I had always been a fan of story-telling shows, both at live performances and in podcasts, but never thought I would have the courage to do something like this myself.

When I saw the call for story pitches for the ALSO meeting (which I was already planning to attend), I got up the nerve and responded. But then I was selected as one of 5 participants; I was both excited and terrified. Now I was committed!

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The story had to be true and related to science. I wanted to tell the story of how I left my career in the corporate world and became a scientist. I hadn’t realized how much work goes into telling a story. I thought that people just went up to the microphone and started talking. I was relieved to learn that I would actually write a script. That script was revised about 5 times, with feedback from helpful producers who asked questions and make suggestions about where I could add details or sections that could be cut. Then I rehearsed it like crazy. Maybe some people can practice once or twice, but not me.

When it finally was time for the event, I had major butterflies in my stomach. The event was held in a local pub in Vancouver, BC, the site of the scientific conference. There were a surprising number of locals in attendance, members of a local storytelling group. I was last in the lineup and I had to nervously wait for the other storytellers to finish. It was excruciating. When my time finally came, I was introduced and walked up to the microphone, which was bathed in a spotlight. Behind the mike, I couldn’t see a thing because the spotlight was incredibly bright. So, I just talked to the light. It was a little strange not being able to make eye contact with the audience. But after I started talking, I got into it and began to have fun. I could hear the audience responding to my words, with laughter in the right places. While I forgot a couple details and added a few that I hadn’t planned, overall, I felt that the practice paid off. I was so full of adrenaline, I could have probably run a marathon after I was done with the story!

At the end of the event, members of the audience came up to me to share their stories or thank me for sharing mine. It was incredibly rewarding. Having time to reflect on the event, I have come to a few conclusions, in no particular order. 1) I really want to do this again; 2) Stories make us human; 3) Everyone has stories – but I wonder if we are really listening to each other; 4) There is something about the process of telling a personal story that is, for lack of a better word, cathartic; 5) As scientists, we are trained to write and communicate in very formal and technical ways (e.g. scientific papers and presentations at conferences), but we can learn a lot from the story-telling tradition.

Here is a link to the audio recording of my story. I recommend Story Collider for great personal stories about science.

The transcript follows below: 

It happened spontaneously.  I was sobbing uncontrollably in the women’s bathroom.  When I figured out that someone might hear me, I grabbed a wad of toilet paper and I ran to a conference room.  I had had this kind of meltdown before, but it was always at home, a safe place in front of my husband.  The fact that this happened at the office made it even worse.

Like what’s wrong with me?  I should be happy with my situation.  I had gone to a top business school, I was climbing the corporate ladder in a high-tech company, managing a team of financial analysts and a big budget, like hundreds of millions of dollars.  But the reality was I felt like a failure.  I hated this hyper-competitive work environment, I hated feeling like this cog in a corporate machine and I was just miserable all the time.

I couldn’t let anybody see my meltdown.  The conference room had a small window in the door and I sat with my back to it and I pretended to fiddle with the speakerphone that was in the center of the table.  If someone had looked in, they just would assume that I was on a conference call.

I stayed long enough to regain my composure and then put back on my finance manager face and I walked down this long, great-carpeted corridor back to my gray cubicle that was nestled amongst all the other hundreds of gray cubicles on the floor.

Now, at about the same time, my husband and I had taken a trip to the Grand Canyon.  While we were hiking, we came across a wildlife biologist and she was using special equipment to monitor condors that had been raised in captivity and then re-released into the wild.  Condors are a type of vulture that is critically in danger.  We were among a group of people that were standing around her and she was explaining what she was doing in the birds and the equipment.

It’s obvious she loved her job.  She was with the US Forest Service so she had this uniform on, a brown shirt and this hat.  As I looked at her, it occurred to me like, “Oh, my God, she looks like Ranger Rick.”

Ranger Rick is the raccoon mascot of the National Wildlife Federation.  As a child, I loved animals and I would wait every month for Ranger Rick’s Nature Magazine to come in the mail.  It was a glossy magazine full of pictures of animals and it talked about their habitat and the environment and I loved it.

On top of that, I had all these field guides that I would just go through all the time.  I was ready to identify beavers and elk and all these great mammals that lived in North America.  Or I could identify them by sight or by footprint.  I was really into footprints.  The kind of reality I didn’t recognize at the time was my family lived in suburban Detroit, Michigan so the wildlife was basically squirrels.

But seeing the wildlife biologist, I realized like, “Oh, my God, I could have been her.”

As a child, I was full of curiosity about the world around me.  When did I become this corporate zombie?  The fact that I'd had this spontaneous meltdown at work made me realize that I think I’m losing control and I probably need to talk to a professional about this.

I started seeing a therapist that my employer paid for and I did a lot of soul searching and I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t well suited for my current work environment, so I started looking for a new job.

I put a few applications out there but I secretly hoped they wouldn’t call me.  My heart just was not in it.  And I couldn’t get this wildlife biologist out of my mind.  I felt drawn or compelled to… I really want to do something with the environment, like take this path I didn’t take before.

And because I invested so much in my career in finance, I thought, “Oh, my God.  I’m having a midlife crisis.”  An early one, premature, of course, but it’s a midlife crisis.  I tried to put these thoughts aside.

But they kept coming back so I went through this period of time where I was seriously like, “Should I stay?  Should I go?  What should I do?”  I finally decided I would take the plunge.  I would just leave the corporate life.

I made up my mind I would go back to school at nearby Arizona State University.  It was nearby where we were living and I would enroll in their Conservation Biology Program.

Now, when I told my colleagues and my employer, there was no drama.  People might have thought I was crazy but nobody said so.  And the news made one of my analysts, Steve, really happy because Steve would be promoted into my job.  I'd been replaced before I'd even left.  I wasn’t surprised by this because rule number one of the corporate world is we’re all replaceable.

I was excited about the decision to go back to Arizona State, but at the same time, for someone who had always had a five-year career plan, I was kind of terrified because I had absolutely no idea where this would take me.

At the time I decided to go back to school, I hadn’t had any formal science education in about 20 years, like back in the days before the internet.  I thought, well, I have some catching up to do.  I enrolled in freshman level biology and chemistry classes and that’s when an academic adviser told me that I am a nontraditional student, which I learned later meant I’m old.

When I interact with the traditional students, I realized they were young enough to be my children and they didn’t really know what to make of me.  They would call me “ma’am,” which is actually quite polite and respectful, but my immediate response was I’m not ma’am-old.  That’s for grandmothers.  I wanted to correct them but, in the end, I just tried to be cool.  Laugh it off.

I kind of found myself in this no man’s land where on the one hand it was difficult to maintain relationships from my previous life, my corporate life because what we have in common was the work and when that was gone we just drifted apart.  But on the other hand, there was just too much of a generation gap to make friends with the traditional students.

I expected to leave this no man’s land once I started taking the conservation biology classes.  I thought I'll find people who are mature and like the wildlife biologist.  They're passionate about their work.

Actually, that was the case.  The professors and the graduate teaching assistants, you could tell when they talk about their work with endangered species they loved what they did and that was inspiring.

During these classes, I was learning a lot and it was interesting, but I wasn’t feeling this sense of curiosity and wonder or the enthusiasm that I was expecting.  Of course, then the crazy thoughts started going in my head and it’s like, “Oh, my God, it was a midlife crisis after all.”  I've abandoned my career for these Ranger Rick memories.

I tried to tamp down those feelings because at this point I’m kind of committed.  I was like, “Okay, I'll just focus on being a good nontraditional student.”

I threw myself into my studies and preparing for an exam and one of the classes I was taking that time was an ecology class.  I pulled out my notes from lectures a few weeks ago as I was getting ready for this exam and the professor had given a talk about elemental cycles.  This is how the key elements of life, like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus moved between land and the atmosphere and oceans.  He had handed out this box and arrow diagrams that basically showed these flows.

As I was looking at what I had written, I realized that I had written numbers next to the arrows.  And the arrows would be like this is how much nitrogen goes from the soil to the atmosphere and from the atmosphere to the soil.  But the notation that I'd used, I realized, and the way I had written the notes its kind of like how I had written it for a budget.  It’s kind of like cash inflows and cash outflows.  Huh, that hadn’t really dawned on me during the lecture.  I just listened and took notes.

Then I remembered that during the lecture he'd actually used the word ‘budget’ when he talked about these elemental cycles.  My reaction was like, “Oh, my God, that is so cool.  I want to know more.”  Scientists use budgets to understand the elemental cycles and these budgets are kind of like what I did in my previous life, so great.

Then I steered off the path of conservation biology and into the laboratory of an ecologist professor who studied nitrogen in streams and rivers.  I was getting paid minimum wage to assist one of her graduate students, Tammy with her lab and field work.

Now, at that point, I'd worked for years indoors, under artificial light in small cubicles.  In the days before business casual, I wore worsted wool suits and I had the cotton starched shirts with a floppy bow around my neck.  Now, here I was outside working with my hands.

After a particularly intense encounter with a flash flood, I complained to Tammy, “I have never been this dirty in my entire life.”  I was serious and I expected sympathy.  And she laughed at me.  I think I eventually laughed too then I proceeded to pick twigs and pebbles out of my bra.  How far I had come from the corporate world.

Today, I make nitrogen and phosphorus budgets trying to understand, related to human activities, how much stays on land, how much enters coastal waters where it can cause problems and I try to explain these budgets to policymakers and why they should care about them.  I think what this tells me is that I've always been an accountant at heart it’s just I had to find the right units, and that was elements instead of dollars.  Thank you.

 

Michelle McCrackin

Limnologist
michelle.mccrackin@su.se