Expectations of growing up

There are a few questions in life, which I feel, are always relevant. Some of these questions are never even re-phrased as we get older. My favourite?

“What do you want to be when you grow-up?”

When I was younger (much, much younger), I wanted to be a teacher. After all, it was the first “big” word I could spell and it was who I was surrounded by all the time. Not to mention, I loved (I mean LOVED) school. Seriously, it was a treat to do homework every night.

My cousin Matt and I were inseparable when we were younger. My family would often tell him he was going to be a doctor one day, and I would be his nurse. I thought this sounded like the best plan. I would be able to help my cousin make everyone feel better, plus, I would be able to see him all the time. It really was win-win for me. That is, until I started questioning why I couldn’t be the doctor and why he couldn’t be my nurse. Or, why we both couldn’t be doctors?!

But then, I went on to middle school and started to have science classes. Not the generic science classes, but chemistry and biology. I then wanted to be a scientist. I had no idea at that time that there were types of scientists. All I knew was I loved my science classes, despite struggling with them the most. In Michigan, we had to take these achievement tests from California (CAT) until Michigan eventually made their own (MAT). Anyway, I would always score the lowest in the science and english categories, and I would always score the highest in math. This has never changed during the course of my life. The ACT, the SAT, and the GRE all followed these trends. I actually think it’s because of my amazing math skills that I even got in to graduate school in the first place.

Back to my story.

When I was 16, I was nearing the age of getting my first job. I was super excited! I could earn some money to buy myself some new school clothes, or save it up for something more grand one day. It was very important to earn our own money growing up, especially because I lived in a single-parent household with 2 other sisters. All 3 of us hated asking our mom for any money, and we would often go without the things we wanted because we had everything we needed. When I was 16, and I could get a job, I was all for it. But what to do? I knew I didn’t want to work with food. I was awful with people, and I didn’t want to carry heavy trays to tables (let’s face it, I’m pretty clumsy, and this would have been disastrous). So, I began where most people did – I looked in the newspaper to see if there were any funeral homes in the area that could use a receptionist. I figured – I wouldn’t really have to deal with angry people yelling at me, and how perfect of a job would that be?! At this point in my life, I wanted to be a Mortician. Alas, a funeral home wasn’t my first job. I ended up as a game master for a local lazer tag joint. It was the best first job ever! But, it really had nothing to do with what I wanted to be for the rest of my life. That one was getting trickier and trickier to answer.

What did I want to be when I grew up?

I went through high school knowing I was going to go to school to be a scientist. I ended up at Michigan Technological University in the upper peninsula of Michigan studying Molecular Biology. Just 1 measly year in to this degree and I knew it wasn’t exactly for me. It was heavy on the biology, as the degree was offered through the Biology Department, and biology seemed very much like the english and art classes to me. What I mean is, biology was more qualitative and I was more quantitative in nature. I decided to switch to Chemistry. I am so glad I did. My grades were improving, and I liked the classes I was in. Then, I graduated with my degree and …. now what? I guess I should find a scientist job somewhere.

Oh boy, did you know there are many types of scientists? I sure didn’t. So, again, I had to figure out what I wanted to be. I went on to my first job at a prominent institution working as a biochemist in population genetics studying Parkinson’s disease. It was pretty cool, but that lab wasn’t a great fit for me. I also had to move from Michigan to Florida, far away from any familial support system. I got a second job to help pay some bills at a local movie theatre, where I met (and still talk to) some amazing people. After this job, I went to another prominent institution and I worked as a Chemist in R&D helping to develop new contact lenses (you probably have tried them out, if you wear contacts). I loved learning and using all of the instrumentation (which was available in huge quantities, so I barely had any waiting time – it’s like a dream for any scientist!) but it really felt like an assembly line. I would go in to work every day, log in my hours, work as fast as I could, then go home. When I was at home, I never thought about this job. Although I made great money in this Industrial job, I craved the research I did at my first real job outside of university. So, I went back, hesitantly. I knew the work environment could be catty and I hated the drama. So, I made a sacrifice. I took a lesser pay for doing something that seemed important to me. I went back, this time working as a Biochemist and Biophysicist on Alzheimer’s disease. Time when on, and I began hearing that pesky voice in my mind asking that same pesky question. This job is great and all, but what do you want to be when you grow up?

I decided to go on and get a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, with a heavily biophysics influenced project. Would it surprise you that I kept with the neurodegenerative disorders too? I am 4.5 years in to this degree, and I hope I only have 1.5 years (at most) left. It would be wonderful if my pain and suffering could be ended much sooner though (I’m not going to lie)! With this degree, my world is going to open up. The jobs won’t be flowing in like I always imagined due to this economy, but I could be anything my little heart could desire. … but what does that even mean anymore? 

Alas, I arrive at the same crossroads I have been at my entire life.

Have you read Hamlet by William Shakespeare? Basically, Prince Hamlet wants revenge on his uncle for killing his father. Prince Hamlet ends up exacting this revenge, taking the throne he was born to have, and marrying his father’s widow (i.e. his mother). It’s a crazy story that just gets more and more crazy, especially as Hamlet becomes more enraged and more grief-stricken … and, if you weren’t picking up what I was putting down, Hamlet goes mad. This tragedy explores a lot of different themes along the way; of course there is incest, the corruption of morality, revenge, and even treachery. Hamlet is by far, one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, and it has a lot of wonderful quotes. The one you may be most familiar with is

“To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to?”
-opening phrase to the soliloquy in the Act III Scene I of Hamlet (modern version)

Bare with me as I take this entire passage (which I have significantly shortened) out of context and apply it to my non-incest, non-treacherous, non-morally corrupted, and non-revengeful life that is slightly mad.

What do I want to be as I grow up? Should I suffer doing research that I don’t necessarily like and doesn’t feel important to me, while making a lot of money? Or should I go into the scientific abyss, doing something I really enjoy, that constantly engages me, while making a meager wage? Either way, we all die in the end, and with that death is the death of all our worldly troubles.  …. This brings me to current day. I have done these two things, I have chosen the meager wage and my happiness. I hope this trend keeps happening, because I would love to be able to sleep at night.

So, my friends, I ask you – what do you want to be when you grow up?