For the first fourteen years of my life, I thought science was boring. As far as I could tell, science was a process of memorising facts: the order of the planets, the names of clouds, the parts of a cell. Sometimes science meant building contraptions out of paper and tape to allow an egg to survive a two-metre fall, and I was really terrible at that sort of thing. So instead I spent all my spare time reading and writing, and decided to be a novelist when I grew up.
This all changed in my first year of secondary school, when I met the periodic table. I don’t know what it says about me that my first spark of interest in science boiled down to “This chart is very nicely organised”. (As anyone who has seen my home library will attest, I really like organising things.) The periodic table quickly acted as a gateway drug to basic physics and chemistry. Science still meant memorising facts, but suddenly they were much more interesting facts.
In the next year of secondary school, maths also became interesting. Until then, maths had been easy to the point of tedium. Most of my time in maths had been spent triple-checking my answers. But now maths was streamed into three different courses, and I chose the most difficult one, and it was wonderful. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as being challenged for the first time.
So now I had a dilemma. I wasn’t so interested in being a novelist any more, and I really liked maths and science. But at my school, all the best maths and science students went on to be doctors. Whereas I was so squeamish about medical things that I would hide from the television whenever my older sisters watched ER. I was also something of a hypochondriac. These are not qualities which are prized by the medical profession.
It was very important for a teenager in the early 2000s to know exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up, so I worried about this a lot. For a while I tried to convince myself to be a doctor anyway. I had no interest in dentistry or pharmacy, which were the other options presented to me. I seriously considered becoming an optometrist, but the faint possibility that I might have to deal with an eyeball that had popped out of someone’s head was enough to turn me against the idea. Some of the strong maths and science students at my school had gone on to become engineers, but I thought that probably involved the same sorts of skills as building egg-protecting devices.
At the same time as this inner turmoil, something else was going on: I was becoming interested in the environment. This was mostly a result of peer pressure. There was a very cool group of students, most in the year above mine, who had started an environmental club. Once a week, I came to school extra early in the morning to hang out with them at club meetings. And we had long and fascinating discussions, ranging from the best way to save water in the school’s bathrooms to environmental policy in the Canadian government.
I started to wonder if there was a career path which connected the environment with maths and science. I went on my school’s career-matching website to find out, and filled in the questionnaire. The website recommended I become a chemist who tested water samples from industrial plants to make sure they weren’t polluting the local environment. I wasn’t particularly inspired by this idea. I remember reading over all the other careers on the website, but I don’t remember seeing anything about academia or scientific research. And, I mean, fair enough. Given the massive oversupply of PhDs in the modern world, I understand why schools wouldn’t want to funnel students in that direction.
Meanwhile, back in the environmental club, names were being drawn out of a hat. One of the local universities was holding a climate change conference for secondary school students, and my school had been allocated three places. I was one of the lucky ones, and a few weeks later I rode the bus to the city centre for the conference.
The first presentation was called “The Science of Climate Change” and it was delivered by Danny Blair, a climatologist at the university. He talked about many different things and all of them were fascinating and I scrawled tiny notes in a tiny notebook as quickly as I could. But I particularly remember him explaining how scientists can use ice cores to figure out the temperature from hundreds of thousands of years ago. In short, oxygen has different isotopes, some of which are heavier than others. When the oxygen atoms join H2O molecules, they form “heavy water” and “light water”. Heavy water needs more energy, and therefore a higher temperature, to evaporate from the ocean and eventually fall as precipitation somewhere else. So by measuring the ratio of heavy water to light water in the ice cores, you can figure out what the global temperature was when each layer of snow fell.
Sitting there with my tiny notebook, I thought this was just the most fascinating thing I’d ever heard. This was the very first time I’d seen a practical application of the periodic table which brought me joy and excitement, rather than despair that I might end up testing water samples for the rest of my life. And it slowly dawned on me that this job called “scientist” basically meant you could study whatever you found interesting, and get paid to do so. “Right then,” I thought, “I’ll be a scientist.”
It’s eleven years later and I still haven’t changed my mind. I didn’t become an ice core scientist, but I did end up studying a different part of the climate system which I found even more interesting. Academia is not perfect, but there is no other way I’d rather spend my working life. Far from memorising an endless stream of facts, it turns out that science is full of creativity and solving mysteries. My work is always changing and growing, and I never get bored.