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Origin Stories: Stories about paths to becoming a scientist

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This week we present two stories about the inspiration behind scientists' careers.

Part 1: Kate Marvel's dream of being a genius takes her to Cambridge to study astrophysics.

Kate Marvel is a scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute of Space studies. She uses computer models and satellite observations to monitor and explain the changes happening around us. Her work has suggested that human activities are already affecting global rainfall and cloud patterns. Marvel is committed to sharing the joy and beauty of science with wider audiences. She has advised journalists, artists and policymakers, written a popular science blog and given frequent public talks. Her writing has appeared in Nautilus Magazine and On Being.  You can watch her Mainstage TED talk at go.ted.com/katemarvel

Part 2: When Joe Normandin begins to question his sexuality as a teenager, he turns to neuroscience for help.

Joe Normandin earned a B.A. in Biology with a Specialization in Neuroscience from Boston University, where he worked as an undergraduate research assistant in labs studying the behavioral genetics of sexual orientation in people and female sexual behavior in a rat model.  He earned a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences - Neurobiology and Behavior from Georgia State University, where he explored how the brain regulates sexual reflexes.  He found evidence of a brain circuit that provides an anatomical/functional basis for the oft-reported side effects of delayed orgasm in those taking antidepressants. He is now a Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University. Dr. Normandin values the wonderful public education and support he received as a young gay man growing up in Massachusetts.  Even with that education and support, he struggled with his identity as a gay person.  In high school, a psychology class introduced him to neuroscience, which led to a search for research that he thought would validate his sexual orientation.  This search set him on a path towards becoming a neuroscientist, and ultimately led to questions he explores in the classroom: Are people born gay?  Does it matter?  Dr. Normandin is also an avid gamer and has saved the universe many times.

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Kate Marvel

So I had really simple goals when I was a kid.  All I ever wanted to be was a genius.  Initially, I thought I was going to be a writer.  I was going to be a literary genius and people were going to talk about Shakespeare and Austen and Marvel, but there was one problem with that.  I actually have here an actual book of poetry that I wrote when I was a teenager and I’m going to read you some of it right now. 

Kate Marvel shares her story at Caveat in New York City in September 2017. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

I look through the window at the cold black rain,

It is black like my soul,

Black like my heart,

Black like my broken heart.

Why do you not love me with your heart…

Steve?

So clearly literary genius probably not on the horizon.  But that was okay because I had a backup plan.  I ran the drama club in high school and I was totally that kid.  I would go full method for Guys and Dolls or whatever.  So my backup plan was I was going to be the greatest actor of my generation.

I had it all worked out.  I was going to go to college.  I was going to major in drama and then something practical like English.  Then, four years later, I would move to L.A. and just become a movie star because that’s how it works. 

And my mom, who’s generally very supportive but has like a more realistic understanding of the economics of the film industry than I did, was just dead set against this plan and was trying to do everything she could to discourage it.  So we would watch TV and you know those commercials where some poor woman has to look directly at the camera and talk about her yeast infection, my mom would always be like, “See her?  She went to drama school.” 

But you know what?  I was not deterred.  So I went to college and I started going to auditions.  Turns out that film and theater are very visual mediums.  Like who knew?  For better or for worse, you are generally competing for roles against people who are the same physical type as you.  Turns out, there's a lot of tall, blonde girls who want to be actresses and also turns out most of them are more talented than I was. 

So it was really hard because I would go to auditions and I would get nothing, not even a callback.  I was like, “Does somebody need me to talk about my yeast infection on national TV?  Because I will do that.”  And nobody did.  Nobody did. 

But simultaneously, something else was happening.  While I was going to all these auditions and getting nothing, I was sitting in other classes.  Because I went to one of those universities that’s really annoying, that doesn’t just let you take whatever classes you want.  You have to take a bunch of really boring classes that you're never going to use again.  Like horrible shit, like science and math. 

And if I knew anything about myself, I knew that I hated science and math.  I especially hated physics because, honestly, I did not and I still do not understand why anybody would give a shit about that ball rolling down an inclined plane.  And like all of the problems in our textbook were about shooting things, like that’s acceptable behavior. 

And the problems would be like, “Bob has a rocket launcher,” but then if you had like the newer PC textbook, it would be like, “Luanda has a rocket launcher.” 

I was like, “You know what?  This is not for me.” 

So I wanted to get the science distribution requirement out of the way as soon as possible and I'd heard that there was this class in astronomy that was actually kind of interesting and really easy and they don’t make you take any math, so awesome.  I signed up for that just to get it out of the way. 

So simultaneously, as I was going to all these auditions and getting nothing, I was sitting in that astronomy class thinking, “Oh, my God.  Did you guys know there's a giant black hole in the center of our galaxy and like the universe began and we’re all gonna die a heat death as entropy takes over?”  And I was like, “I did not even know it was possible to know this stuff.  This is amazing and I really wanna know more.  If I wanna know more, I’m gonna have to learn some math.” 

So I started really seriously thinking about maybe like majoring in astrophysics, which was really weird.  I knew that would be hard and I knew that I would have to take some math.  But you know what really swung it for me?  You know what you get to call yourself when you know astrophysics?  You get to be a genius. 

So I switched my major.  It was hard at first.  I was getting C’s, but I got a lot of help and I got a lot of support.  And those C’s turned into A’s.  By the time my senior year rolled around, I started seriously thinking about going to graduate school.  I don’t really know what that was, but I knew that when you think about geniuses, you think about Einstein and Feynman and Stephen Hawking.  Two of those dudes are dead, so no good to anybody.  And the other guy is at Cambridge University. 

I was like, “That’s where I’m gonna go.  I’m gonna go to Cambridge University.  I think it’s in England.” 

So I applied for a scholarship and I got an interview, so I flew out to D.C.  And the interview panel was these two British guys who were so upper class that they were both named Nigel, and a third guy who, I’m not kidding, had lost his tongue in an accident. 

And so the two Nigels, I think they were like playing Good Nigel, Bad Nigel with me, but it didn’t matter because I couldn’t understand a word they said.  They had such posh accents.  Then like no-tongue guy would try to clarify and it was like a total fiasco.  I just started answering like stock questions, like, “Yes, I would say my greatest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist.”  I don't know.  So afterwards I flew back to California and I was so sad. 

Then two weeks later I got an email saying I'd gotten a scholarship.  I’m still, to this day, convinced it was an administrative mix-up but please don’t tell them.  So I was going to go to Cambridge and that was amazing. 

Let me tell you a little bit about Cambridge.  Cambridge is Hogwarts, but there's no magic and everybody is in Slytherin.  They have all of these requirements that make no sense, but like some monk came up with them in 1300 and now nobody can change them.  They have these dinners that you can go to every single night where you have to wear full academic regalia and you look like a giant bat. 

When I did my masters there, they announced the results by having a guy put a giant pin cushion on his head and climb to the top of the tower, read out the results and then throw the papers in the crowd, like that’s normal.  They even had secret codes that you could use to ask somebody to pass the port without directly asking them to pass the port, because it’s England and they can’t use that word or something.  Seriously, no British novels make any sense if people just use their words. 

But that didn’t matter.  It didn’t matter because I was there to be a genius. 

So the way that the British academic system works is it’s based on this sort of like medieval, monk-style guild apprenticeship system where you get matched with a senior professor.  That senior professor is your supervisor and they're supposed to kind of guide you into the ways of becoming an expert in physics, a.k.a. a genius. 

So I sat down with my adviser and I was like, “I’m so excited to be here.  What should I do?” 

He kind of looked at me and he's like, “I think you should do some physics.” 

So I went away and I tried to do some physics.  You guys, turns out that’s really hard.  I had no idea what I was doing and I was really struggling.  I would read papers and theoretical cosmology and I would be like, “I don't know what any of these words mean.”  And it was hard because I saw the other students and they seemed to be getting more help and more mentorship than me.  I think a lot of that was because they reminded the professors of themselves when they were younger.  I don't know how much you guys know about the gender balance in theoretical physics but I was not reminding anybody of themselves when they were younger. 

On top of that, the faculty, especially the younger faculty, they didn’t want to mentor me.  They wanted to do other things with me and it was just awkward.  I felt sad and I felt scared and I felt out of place and, most of all, I felt like an imposter.  Because this is theoretical physics.  We’re supposed to be finding the theory of everything.  How are you supposed to understand the theory of everything if you feel like you don’t understand anything? 

So I kind of gave up and after a year I went to go find my adviser and ask for help.  He wasn’t in his office and he wasn’t anywhere else in the building.  Finally, I asked the department secretary and she was like, “Oh, that guy?  He moved to Canada six months ago.” 

So I was in need of another supervisor.  That was a tough proposition.  Was I going to go with the guy who referred to all women as Anna, like that was an acceptable approximation?  Probably not. 

So it turns out that the only guy who was available to supervise me was available because, in addition to being a professor of physics, he also had a second job.  His job was he was the wine steward of Cambridge University, which meant that it was his job to go to France and buy the investment wines and also the everyday drinking wines. 

He took this job very seriously, like very seriously.  He was always in a state of what I would call advanced refreshment.  But you know what?  He wasn’t in Canada. 

So I worked with him and I wrote a thesis.  If anybody is curious, my PhD thesis is on the probability that a giant bubble of nothing will spontaneously materialize and eat the entire universe.  Given at 2017, the answer to that question is “not soon enough.”

So I had this thesis and it was enough to get a PhD.  It was enough to pass, but it wasn’t very good and it certainly wasn’t a great thesis.  It was not enough to be a genius. 

You know what?  By that time I was okay with that.  Because let me tell you something about studying the entire universe.  You look at the entire universe and, honestly, most of it sucks.  Like this right here, this planet is really the only part of the universe that’s any good.  It’s true.  I’m sorry, exoplanet scientists.  They are boring.  There's like no bars. 

So I switched my fields again.  I became an earth scientist and now I study climate change.  Being a climate scientist, you get called a lot of things -- like a lot of things.  You should see my email inbox or my Twitter mentions.  Actually, my Twitter mentions are fine because I block everybody who doesn’t amuse me, so that’s fine.  But the one thing you don’t ever get called is a genius because we don’t really associate climate science with genius. 

I don't associate climate science with genius because I know I’m not one. I know that, eventually, I will come to a problem that I can’t solve and I’m going to go need to talk to somebody who knows what they're talking about, an oceanographer or a biogeochemist or somebody who understands how ice sheets melt. 

I’m not a genius and that’s okay because, guys, the ice sheets are melting.  We don’t have time for this shit.  So I’m not. 

If I had to talk to myself as a 16-year-old, I would say, “You know what?  You're not a genius and that’s okay because you have a job, you do work that you find interesting, that you love.  Sometimes people listen to what you have to say, sometimes people you don’t even know, and eventually there will be an invention of a miraculous technology called Facebook. And Facebook will allow you to look up Steve, and you would not have worked out.  Thank you.

Part 2: Joe Normandin

I grew up in a town in Massachusetts called Methuen and on my first day of high school I put on my red Converse shoes and my red sweatshirt and I walked one block to the bus stop.  There at the bus stop was another guy in a red sweatshirt.  It was a tragedy of high school proportions. 

But this tragedy turned into a boon because I became friends with this guy.  His name was Nathan.  In a lot of ways he was very unlike me.  He was tall, blond, muscular, very handsome guy.  I learned that he was the son of a Methodist minister, that he loved soccer, he loved to play baseball as well and was really, really into sports. 

I, on the other hand, as I appear here now, am a short, skinnier – back then – and love video games and comic books and science.  So Nathan and I, to some degree, were opposites in this way.  But there was one thing that we both had in common which was that we were both interested in people and in ourselves and the way people tick and what’s going on in that internal world.  That was the bond that we had in fact through the beginning of high school. 

I admired Nathan a lot because, at that time in my life, I really didn’t like that skinny nerd.  He was everything that I kind of wanted to be, that I wished I could be.  That admiration sort of led me to feel inferior to him in a lot of ways, so led to a bit of shame, I would say.  Then as time went on and our friendship grew deeper, I realized it wasn’t admiration that I was feeling.  As I matured both emotionally and sexually, I realized that I was in love with Nathan.  That brought even more shame to me because, in the environment that I grew up in, even living in liberal Massachusetts, that meant to me being a gay person would be someone who was sick or someone who would never live a happy life.  It was all just a sense of shame that I had to bury. 

I buried that and time went on and Nathan and I remained good friends, although with a lot of pain on my part.  Later on in high school, I took a class, AP Psychology.  In this class there was a wonderful book that talked about ego and id and all those wonderful psychology terms, but I wasn’t satisfied with that.  Then there was this one chapter in the book about the brain and it talked about different parts of the brain and what they do. 

It talked about the amygdala and how the amygdala is all about fear and the expression of fear, the occipital lobe which is important for vision, the hypothalamus which regulates feeding behavior.  And all of this absolutely positively captivated me.  It said to me that everything that we are is right there in our brain.  It was absolutely amazing to me.  All those talks that Nathan and I had had about what makes us tick and other people do this stupid shit that they do, it was right there in that book, and I was completely captivated. 

But it also said something else to me.  That maybe I was gay because of my brain.  Maybe, like my brain makes me right-handed, my brain could be making me gay. 

At our show at the Highland Ballroom in October 2017, Joe Normandin sciences the fuck out of that shit. Photo by Rob Felt.

So the search was on.  I was not going to ask my teacher why I was in love with Nathan.  I was not going to ask the teacher why I was gay.  But I knew I could perhaps find out a little bit about this.  So like any good nerd would do, I scienced the fuck out of that shit. 

So I decided to go to the library.  It’s a building and they have books about stuff.  No Google back then, no Wikipedia back then.  So I went to Andover, Massachusetts, two towns away, and there were two advantages to going to Andover.  The first advantage was that rich people lived there and they had more books than in my town.  Also, it was two towns away and I wouldn’t know anybody there. 

So I went to the Andover Library and I found the deepest, darkest corner where there was still a card catalog computer.  I searched for different terms and found a section in the library about human sexuality.  My plan was that if I walked over there and I saw someone at all I would just ease on over, grab a feminist theory book, read that and be all set. 

So I headed over to that section.  No one was there.  Didn’t need my backup feminist theory book.  And on the bottom shelf, I bent down and sifted through all of these books.  This sad kid, this kid filled with shame in those stacks, alone, looking through all those books. 

I found a book called The Sexual Brain by Dr. Simon LeVay who’s a neuroscientist, a neuroanatomist to be specific.  And in this book I saw some amazing things.  I learned that sexual orientation was heritable, meaning it ran in families.  Gayness ran in families.  I learned that there were perhaps even genetic links to sexual orientation in people. 

I also saw something even more amazing, which was that there was a part of the brain in gay and straight men that was different.  Not only that, but it was part of the hypothalamus.  I mentioned earlier that the hypothalamus is involved in feeding behavior, but it’s also involved in all of our instinctual drives including sex.  And Simon LeVay’s own work showed that the third interstitial nucleus in the anterior hypothalamus was sexually dimorphic, which essentially means it’s different between the sexes.  And it was also dimorphic or different between sexual orientations.  So gay men and straight men had different INAH3s as they're known. 

Looking at that, it said to me that maybe I was in fact normal.  Maybe I was gay because my brain was different.  That was an important change for me.  This science had given me this gift, to some degree, of just feeling okay. 

After that, I went home and, I remember very distinctly, as I prepared this story, something that I hadn’t thought about in a very long time that’s frankly really hard to talk about.  I remember taking this long shower and, in the shower, thinking about all of these things that had come to pass in understanding my sexuality in that book that I read at the library.  I remember just crying and crying, feeling like a sense of relief because I was accepting that I was gay. 

And I remember actually saying out loud, “I’m gay.  I’m gay.  I’m gay,” and just crying.  It was a very interesting experience.  In the gay community, we kind of call this coming out to yourself.  The idea of finally accepting that you're gay in a culture that kind of frowns upon that. 

Things changed for me pretty rapidly after that.  I gained a lot of confidence, in general, in high school, in my intelligence, in the good person that I was becoming and feeling comfortable with my sexuality more and more.  I came out to a few friends.  My best friend Jessica was very nonplussed about the whole situation and wanted to know if I had more fries for her rather than really having any reaction at all.  She also used to be my girlfriend, which is another story. 

I came out to other friends and things in general went pretty well.  I started going to a gay youth group meeting other gay kids and really gaining a lot of confidence and a lot of good sense of self from that and a healthy sense of self-esteem.  I also joined the gay-straight alliance at my high school and that gay-straight alliance for a long time was just me, but apparently now it’s going really strong.  It’s all me. 

There was a teacher at school, Ms. Jean Matthews, who made sure that I could do that, that I could be the gay-straight alliance for some time.  And whenever incidents happened in high school, like bullying or harassment, and there were a few, she always had my back and I'll never forget that. 

I also came out to Nathan and I also told Nathan that I liked him.  And I know what you're all hoping for right now, Nathan had a secret too.  But he didn’t.  He was straight.  In fact, this new relationship we had where there was this unrequited love between us, at least on my side, that’s something that the 17-year-old me couldn’t quite handle and the 17-year-old him couldn’t quite handle either.  In the end, we stopped being friends, although it’s important to say that he was never unkind to me, I would say. 

So as time went on and I gained more confidence in myself, it then became time for college.  Here, there was a confluence of events.  So I had taken this AP Psych class, found this amazing chapter on the brain, I had read this book about human sexuality that, to some degree, validated me and let me feel comfortable, and so what was I going to do but become a neuroscientist.  And not just that but I learned that we didn’t know much about sexuality and the science of sexuality and so I was going to be a sex researcher as well. 

So I found myself at Boston University studying neuroscience.  While I was there, I went to a symposium at this little school down the street called Harvard.  This symposium or lecture was all about the science of sex.  And who was there but Simon LeVay. 

So I went to the talk, heard all about the INAH3 firsthand.  I met Dr. LeVay afterwards and, let me tell you, it was like meeting Oprah. 

I really enjoyed that time.  I also met another professor from BU, Richard Pillard who was one of the first people to show that sexual orientation was heritable.  Since he was at BU we made a connection and I ended up being his research assistant for a while.  I worked in a lab.  After that, studying female sexual behavior in rodents, and that was the late Dr. Mary Erskine’s lab.  I got the best of both worlds, human research and animal research.  I was really on my way. 

In fact, I continued on that path.  Eventually earned my PhD in neuroscience.  I went to Georgia State for that, did my PhD in there.  During my dissertation work, I studied the way that the brain controls ejaculation, the way the brain controls vaginocervical contractions.  And so I like to tell people that I’m a world expert on ejaculation, which often means I don’t get invited back to people’s houses, but you might be on Story Collider. 

By the way, all of that research was in the rat model so it’s not as fun as it sounds. 

So I went on, earned my PhD, did my research and I now teach neuroscience at Georgia State.  I direct their undergraduate neuroscience program and I think about this experience that I had and something new strikes me now.  What that is is that I don't know if we should need to go two towns away to find a book to validate one’s existence.  It strikes me as interesting this intersection of science and society, that science can influence the way we think about ourselves and each other.  But importantly, there are many aspects of humanity that don’t need to be validated with peer-reviewed research.  So our political beliefs, our spirituality, all of these things are taken at face value, but gay people have to somehow validate that they were born that way to deserve any modicum of respect, and I find that very, very strange, I would say.  

So at school I teach Introductory Neuroscience class and the big theme in that class is the intersection of science and society.  Because I’m so fascinated by the science of sex, we absolutely learn about that.  So I ask my students, “Are people born gay?”  But because of this experience that I have and my own perspective on this, there's an important next question to that, which is, “Does it matter?”  Thank you.