The Science of Growing Up: Stories about coming of age

This week, we present two science stories about becoming the people we're meant to be. 

Part 1: Research technician Jean Ansolabehere is surprised to find herself falling in love with a woman in her lab.

Jump to Jean’s story >>

Jean Ansolabehere is a cartoon writer with past lives as a research technician at Stanford University and the Huntsman Cancer Institute. She has loved biology since the first time she got stitches and, in her research and her writing, she strives to understand the human condition through the human body. She also strives to live by the philosophy of her four-year-old half-brother, who is pretty brave when it comes to anything, except his T-Rex toy. He's terrified of that thing.

Part 2: As a child, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman is told by a school psychologist that he's doomed by a low IQ score.

Jump to Scott’s story >>

Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, is an author, researcher, speaker, and public science communicator who is interested in using psychological science to help all kinds of minds live a creative, fulfilling, and meaningful life. He is a professor of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of 7 other books, including Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined and Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (with Carolyn Gregoire). His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and Harvard Business Review, and he writes a blog at Scientific American called Beautiful Minds. Kaufman is also host of The Psychology Podcast.

This story comes from an event produced in partnership with Scientific American and Springer Nature. Watch the full show here:


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Jean Ansolabehere

So depending on how you count, I either came out to my mother super early or like really late.  The first time that I told her I liked women, I was ten years old and we were in the parking lot of a McDonalds.  I did it because I've been in love with this girl in my class named Margo since the summer before.  It was like the kind of love you can only feel when you're ten before you've gotten any baggage and all your gooey feelings are just on the table.  She was so cool.  She wore Converse high tops. 

And standing here saying this to all of you makes me really nervous because, spoiler alert, I never told Margo how I felt.  I didn’t then, I haven't since, but I changed her name and you guys look like you could keep a secret, so let’s keep going. 

I didn’t tell her because I went to an all-girls’ school and the meanest insult that kids from other schools could level at us was calling us a lesbian.  So I didn’t know very much about being a woman who loved a woman but I knew it couldn’t possibly be a good thing.  My feelings about Margo had become my deepest shame, the kind of confession that sits improbably close to the tip of your tongue.  I was so scared that I thought if I didn’t tell my mother I might actually explode. 

My mother was the smartest person I'd ever met and I thought if anyone would know what to do, it would be her.  So it’s a Tuesday night, we’re sitting in my mother’s white minivan and we’re bathed in the glow of Mickey D’s arches.  My mother says, “Are you ready to go inside?”  And I say, “I’m a lesbian.” 

My mother says, “Where did you hear that word?” 

I told her where I heard it.  I heard it from the mean kids from other schools who lobbed that word like a grenade at my classmates.  My mother told me I wasn’t a lesbian.  I took a deep breath and, for the first time out loud, I said, “But I love Margo.”  And without missing a beat, my mother responds with a litmus test that I will never forget. 

She says, “Would you rather have a picture of Keanu Reeves on your wall or Julia Roberts?”

This is 1999 and The Matrix has just come out.  Julia Roberts is pretty passé so, obviously, I say Keanu Reeves, and the tension in the car breaks immediately.  My mom is like, “You've nothing to worry about.  You're not gay.  See.  This sort of thing just happens to young girls.  You're fine.”

Then the knot in my stomach evaporates and I’m like, I’m fine.  I’m ten years old and I’m straight.  I have nothing to worry about. 

I carried around the Keanu Reeves Test as empirical proof of my heterosexuality for the next 15 years, and this is how I know that my mother would have been a great scientist. 

Jean Ansolabehere tells her story at ComedySportz in Los Angeles. Photo by Mari Provencher.

Jean Ansolabehere tells her story at ComedySportz in Los Angeles. Photo by Mari Provencher.

She's a teacher, but I’m pretty sure that’s just because when she went to college in 1963, female scientists were pretty few and far between.  I think she sometimes still feels like she missed her calling to be a researcher or a doctor.  She even talks about it in kind of oblique ways like, example, she sends me a lot of articles about stem cell research or space travel from the New York Times and they always have like, “So exciting,” or, “It would be so cool to do this.” 

And they used to be newspaper clippings.  Like she would mail them to me, but, recently, she found the Forward-This-Article button on and now she's unstoppable. 

When I was in college studying human biology, she would call me once a week just to see what was happening in the classes.  She wasn’t checking on me, she was checking on the curriculum.  I mean, for crying out loud, when I was six years old for my very first science fair, my mother orchestrated this giant, show-stopping project on the circulatory system.  It was huge. Like no six-year-olds could have done this. 

And the best part of it was she bought this lamb heart and we dissected it together in our kitchen.  I remember her pointing with the tip of this bloodstained knife and showing me like the aorta and the pulmonary artery.  And I was staring at this glistening heart just sort of splayed open on our kitchen counter and it was so strong and so impossibly complex with these intricate highways snaking in and out of the ventricles.  I remember thinking I'd never seen something so beautiful. 

I think that might have been the moment that I knew that I love science.  From the look on my mother’s face as she sliced open one of the ventricles to expose the valve, I could tell she loved it too.  So yeah, I became a scientist. 

I was a research technician at a microbiology lab in Utah, where I was living with this guy I was dating at the time.  Long story.  And it was a great job.  I was basically studying DNA replication in cancer so I spent a lot of time either in the cell culture room or in the microscope room, which is my favorite because I was taking pictures of fluorescently tagged DNA fragments, which, if you've never seen them, they're so beautiful.  They just look like fireworks across the slide.  It was an amazing job.  My mother was so jealous, it was great. 

However, I was not great at the job.  My first week there I broke a mercury thermometer in a hot water bath, which is bad because mercury is super toxic and more toxic if you heat it and evaporate it into the environment.  And it’s worse because I waited a whole day before I told anybody about it.  When I finally did, they evacuated the building. 

It was humiliating, but I’m not sorry that I did it because that was the day that I met Beth, this postdoc in the lab next to ours just a couple of benches down.  She was smart and deadpan with these quick little hands that could do anything, which is super important if you're in a lab. 

That day, we were all standing outside waiting for the poison control people to let us back into the building after the thermometer thing, and she came up to me and she was like, “I know you broke the mercury thermometer.”  And I was convinced I was about to lose my job when she leans in and she goes, “Welcome to the club.”  I fell pretty hard pretty fast after that. 

It turned out that talking to Beth was a jolt of adrenaline.  I felt like a superhero when I made her laugh.  We rode the bus together and we talked a lot about what it felt like to be a transplant in Utah.  She was from Oregon, I think, and I was from Los Angeles.  I found myself looking forward more and more to days when I wouldn’t be holed up in the microscope room doing my favorite experiment, when I would be out on the floor running gels or something and talking to her. 

And she made me nervous.  She made me so nervous, the way that Margo made me nervous when I was ten years old.  Once, I was holding a box of Eppendorf tubes while I was talking to her and my hands were so shaky that I just dropped them all over the floor, like 200 precious samples just scattered across the lab.  I got down on my knees and Beth laughed. 

She got down to help me and I was like, “Oh, my God, your laugh is so pretty.”  And then I was like, Oh, no.  This can’t be good.

"That's when I realized she's wearing a ring." Photo by Mari Provencher.

"That's when I realized she's wearing a ring." Photo by Mari Provencher.

But it wasn’t like I was going to do anything about it.  It was a crush.  It was a full-blown crush that might be signaling the beginning of the end with my boyfriend, but I wasn’t going to do anything about it.  I was a straight girl with a boyfriend and a fun work friend who had a very pretty laugh.  And I was fine with everything, just the way it was, until this one night. 

Beth invited me to a party at her place, this cute little craftsman-style house in the hills behind Salt Lake City.  I don't know what I was expecting exactly, but I did my makeup, which I never do, and I insisted that I go alone.  When I got there, I spent like five minutes in the car just psyching myself up to be brave enough to go ring the doorbell.  I finally do and Beth opens the door and my heart, like, stops for a second. 

She's like, “Jean, oh, my God.  I’m so glad you're here.  I saved you cake.”  She saved me cake! “This is Travis.” And she steps aside and she wraps her arms around this very tall, very geeky, very nice-looking guy and he puts his hand out and he goes, “Hey, nice to meet you.  I’m the old ball and chain.” 

That’s when I realized she's wearing a ring.  She's always been wearing a ring.  Like we wear latex gloves in the lab so maybe you couldn’t see it exactly but there's a bump.  She was wearing a ring.  I just didn’t want to see it.  And if I was going to be a good scientist, I had to stop seeing only what I wanted to see. 

So I went home that night a little bit heartbroken, pretty devastated.  But more than that, I went home finally ready to start accepting myself for the person that I was. 

So the second time I came out to my mother I was almost 25.  I was living in Los Angeles, again, the place where I grew up.  We were in a parking lot, again, this time at Baja Fresh.  It’s true.  I was at the very beginning of the best relationship of my life with a woman named Alicia and she said, “Are you ready to go inside?” 

And I said, “I like women.” 

She put her hand over her heart and she said, “That makes me really scared for you.” 

My mother’s heart is strong and scarred.  It is an intricate network of arterial highways and heartbreak.  She is still the smartest woman, the smartest person I've ever met, but she's been told over and over again that she can’t.  And I am so grateful that I live in a city and in a moment in history where I can, I really can.  I can be a scientist, I can be in love with a woman.  None of that makes me afraid.  Not anymore.  Thank you.

Part 2: Scott Barry Kaufman

So about a couple of weeks ago, I was in a really, really good mood.  I was in Philadelphia.  I was walking through the park and the birds were chirping and the sun was out and I was really happy, and I looked over and I saw an older man on the park bench holding his nose.  His nose was bleeding.  I looked at him and, suddenly, a feeling of dread came over me.  I wasn’t quite sure why. 

I sat at a park bench near him and started thinking to myself, “Why am I feeling this way?  I’m feeling scared.  I’m feeling like I’m a little kid again.  This is terrible.  I was in such a good mood.”  And then it all comes back. 

I remember the first couple of years of my life I was practically deaf.  I had a lot of fluid in my ears and they diagnosed me with a learning disability, Central Auditory Processing Disorder.  I was placed in special ed.  I had to repeat third grade as a result of this.  I remember being bullied a lot in third grade over this and kept in special ed.  I was kept in special ed until ninth grade, kind of unquestioningly.  I felt as though I was capable of more challenges, but I felt like who was I to question any of the authorities on this? So I was kept in special ed until ninth grade. 

I remember this one day in ninth grade when they had us go to a special room where you retake tests that are untimed during the regular period because you're in special ed, and there was this teacher who took me aside after class and said, you know, “Why are you here?” 

I said, “Well, first of all, I’m sorry for not taking this test.  It’s untimed.  I have the rest of my life to take it so I've kind of been daydreaming.” 

And she's like, “You know, I think I see you.  Why are you here?” 

I started thinking to myself, “Why am I here?”  And it quickly turned into, “Yeah, why am I here?  Why am I here?” 

And I decided to just take myself out of special education.  I had a big meeting with everyone, the school psychologist and everyone, and they let me out on a trial basis.  They were like, “If you fail, you're gonna have to come back.” 

And I was like, “Thanks for that vote of confidence, guys.  That’s really supportive, full supportive.” 

So when I got out, I signed up for almost every class I could imagine.  I signed up for the school orchestra.  My grandfather was a cellist in the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra and he taught me how to play cello.  And my senior year I had a whole bunch of friends in gifted education and I decided that I wanted to join gifted education. 

So I went up to the gifted education teacher and I said, “You know what?  Could I join gifted education?” 

Scott Barry Kaufman shares his story at our show in partnership with Scientific American and Springer Nature at the Bell House in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Scott Barry Kaufman shares his story at our show in partnership with Scientific American and Springer Nature at the Bell House in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

The teacher said, “You certainly look gifted.” 

I was like, “Okay.”  I guess that’s good, a good start. 

“The only thing is you have to get a formal diagnosis.” 

I was like, “No.” 

“You should have to go to the school psychologist.” 

I'd been trying to keep my label totally secret up to that moment.  It’s like senior year of high school and I was like, “Please, don’t look at my past.” 

So I went to the school psychologist and the school psychologist looked at me, he's like, “Oh, yes.  She's right.  You do look gifted.  Why don’t you just sit here?  I just need to check your IQ score when you're eleven years old.  I’m sure it’s high.” 

I’m like, “What?  No.” 

So he comes back after the file and his entire demeanor has changed.  He's like, “Have a seat.”  And he pulls out a napkin and draws a bell curve on the napkin and he starts at the far right. 

He's like, “Look, these are basically all your friends.  These are all your friends in gifted education.”  He moved to the left, he moved to the middle line, which is average IQ, and he kept moving.  I was like, “When is this guy gonna stop?  How dumb am I?  I didn’t know I was that dumb, jeez.” 

And he moved to the left.  He said, “This is you.  I’m sorry.  You don’t qualify.” 

But I’m getting straight A’s and on honors classes.  I went from a C-D student, by the way, to straight A’s after I took myself out of special ed.  And I’m thinking to myself, “At what point does achievement trump potential?”  I didn’t say that out loud, but I was thinking that to myself.  I was really angry.

And he's like, “Sorry, these are the rules.” 

I checked out a book in the library on intelligence and it said what IQs are capable of achieving in life and then, my IQ, I found where it just told me and it said “not likely to graduate high school.”  I was like, “Screw that!” 

So I applied to Carnegie Mellon University which has a really good psychology program and I put in my personal statement how I want to redefine intelligence.  I don’t think the standard metrics are good indicators of intelligence.  They rejected me.  They said, “Sorry, your SAT scores aren’t high enough to redefine intelligence.” 

I was like, “That’s the most ironic bullshit I've ever heard.”  So I was like, “Do you hear yourself?”  Anyway, I was like…

So I got rejected because I wanted to redefine intelligence, my SAT scores weren’t high enough.  And so I looked at the different departments to see which departments didn’t look at SAT scores.  Of course I found the Opera Department. 

So I walked in the following week to the Opera Department and I was like, “Hi.  I've always wanted to be an opera singer,” and I sang “Stars” from Les Miserables, one of my favorite songs.  They apparently thought I was good.  They accepted me on a partial scholarship at Carnegie Mellon for my vocal abilities.  Don’t make me sing.  Apparently, the departments don’t talk to each other at Carnegie Mellon, because they’d just rejected me.  I was so happy they didn’t talk to each other. 

So I felt like a fraud, of course, imposter.  The whole first year I took dance classes, I did all these things I was terrible at.  I was like, “Why am I here on a partial scholarship for this?”  But anyway, by end of my freshman year I went to the Psychology Department.  I was so nervous.  The secretary was there kind of eating a bologna sandwich.  It was lunchtime and I was so nervous. 

I was like, “Look, I just took a course in psychology and I love it.  Do you think I could be a minor in psychology?” 

She said, “Sure, just sign this piece of paper.” 

I remember skipping home in my tights later that day because I had come from dance class earlier.  Wow, all that fighting and it all came down to just “sign the paper”?  Really? 

So I went back the following semester and I said, “Look, I took another course I loved even more.  Do you think I could be major in psychology?” 

She said, “Yeah, just sign these two pieces of paper.”  Sheesh, no one’s ever been this excited to be a minor in psychology at Carnegie Mellon. 

So I graduate Phi Beta Kappa in psychology as a major.  Thankfully, they never looked at my IQ score at age eleven or else it wouldn’t have been possible to predict that.  So I graduated and then, thankfully, I was accepted into Yale to do a PhD.  And in 2009 I did come up with a dissertation and redefined intelligence in my dissertation. 

That’s the most applause consecutively ever that I've ever received.  Thank you. 

So I’m back on the park bench, kind of the whole story just goes through me again, and then it hits me.  This guy with a bloody nose next to me is the school psychologist that I haven't seen in 20 years.  That’s where I know him from.  That’s why I’m feeling dread. 

So I think to myself, “What do I do?  This is crazy.  Do I punch him and give him a bigger bloody nose?  Do I show compassion?  I don't know what to do.”  So I just go really nervous.  I’m really nervous, I stand up, and I go to him.

I’m like, “Hey,” and I remembered his name.  I said, “Are you so-and-so?”

He said, “Yes, yes.” 

I said, “I was a student of yours a long time ago.” 

He's like, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” 

I was like, “Do you think maybe I could just sit down and talk to you for a second?” 

I sit down and he's like, “Sorry, you know, my nose bleeds periodically.  So anyway, I wanna tell you there's this kid that I’m helping who is just a really stupid kid.  He just got 85 on his IQ test…”

And I’m like, “Really?  This guy hasn’t changed at all?  After 20 years we picked up exactly where we left off?”  I didn’t say that.  I’m thinking to myself, “I can’t believe he's telling me this story.” 

He's like, “Yeah, this kid, I’m helping this kid.  He's young.  His parents have abandoned him…”

But then I just calmed down a second.  I just look at him for who he is and I see, I realize, wow, he's human.  Yeah, he's telling this story but also he's bleeding.  He has a bloody nose.  He's in a vulnerable position right now and he also genuinely cares about helping this kid despite the sort of model that he's working under. 

Then I realize, wow, this person, I've been demonizing this person for 20 years.  In all my stories, he's been the evil school psychologist.  And I realized it’s just a matter of information.  He's just kind of looking through the lens of trying to help this kid of what he knows. 

So I said, “Look, just tell me one good thing about this child.  I work in the field of twice exceptional children.  This is the field that I've gone into.  You actually inspired me to go into that field.”  I didn’t really tell him too much of the story.  “And these kids simultaneously have an area of giftedness but also learning disability -- could it be that this is what you're dealing with here?” 

He thought about it.  He's like, “Wow, no one’s ever asked me that question before.  You know what?  He's a DJ.  He actually loves Dj-ing and he's good at that.” 

I was like, “You just told me for like ten minutes all the things bad about this kid.  Maybe you could kind of build off that.”

Then we had another fifteen minutes of discussion, pleasant conversation, and we said our goodbyes.  As I’m walking away, I feel all that dread just completely leave my body.  This entire narrative this story, what I built him up to be, all these feelings, resentment that I've held towards him just disappeared.  And I realized that that’s my purpose in life.  Just share the information.