Working Life

Finally free

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Science  05 Dec 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6214, pp. 1258
DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6214.1258

As a child, I found relief from the stress of stuttering by burying myself in numerous hobbies. I built rockets and radio-controlled vehicles. I rebuilt engines. I did these things because when I was building something, I did not have to think about speaking. ¶ My hobbies eventually led me to study chemistry. After finishing a B.S. in chemistry at the State University of New York, Oswego, I studied polymer chemistry and earned a Ph.D. at Colorado State University. I enjoyed chemistry research for the same reasons I enjoyed my hobbies as a child: I could do interesting things, free from the stress of speaking. In the laboratory, I could be alone and build things, although now I was building molecules instead of model cars.

“My incapacity for spontaneous speech led to a highly developed skill for improvisation.”

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

I noticed early on that when I forgot about stuttering, my speech became much more fluent. The first few words of a question or first few minutes of a presentation were rough, but then I forgot about the audience, forgot about stuttering, and forgot about worrying. When that happened, my speaking improved. I felt free.

I wanted to feel free all the time. Unfortunately, there were always new people to meet and presentations to deliver, so there were many awkward beginnings. I was ashamed of my stutter and did everything I could to hide it. Far from forgetting about it, I developed strategies for dealing with it. Whenever I felt I was going to stutter, I would substitute a new word that was easier to say. I obsessed over how to deliver a talk or just hold a conversation. I studied every tiny detail and came up with alternative explanations ahead of time so that I could always change terminology or the direction of the conversation. It was a wonderful irony: My incapacity for spontaneous speech led to a highly developed skill for improvisation. My adaptations were so successful that most of my peers and professors probably did not even know I stuttered.

Later, I would learn that hiding my stutter only perpetuated my anxiety and frustration with my speech. The skills I acquired by hiding it, though, never left me.

After graduate school, my interests shifted away from the laboratory, and I started to investigate alternative career paths. I accepted a position as assistant professor and science and engineering librarian at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. In my new job, I communicate regularly and spontaneously with students, faculty, and staff. I knew that if I wanted to succeed, I needed to change my attitude toward stuttering. I could no longer hide behind a lab bench.

I decided to check out the campus Speech and Hearing Center. There, I met an amazing group of therapists, scientists, and students. They helped me realize that my success was a consequence of my stutter, not in spite of it. When I was a child, stuttering had led me to explore certain hobbies. It forced me to become an independent learner. It made me a very hard worker. My largely successful attempts at hiding my stutter led to a remarkable mental agility. Strangely (but successfully) my therapists challenged me to try to stutter more. With all the useful skills I had developed largely because of my stutter, I felt unstoppable when I no longer had to devote energy to hiding it.

I have flourished in my new job. I created and taught a semesterlong graduate chemical information course. I manage a 3Dprinting lab, edit the American Chemical Society's Chemical Information Bulletin, and have published several research articles. Earlier this year, Library Journal named me a “Mover and Shaker,” a prestigious early-career award for librarians.

I have accomplished more than I would have thought possible in my first 2 years here because I stopped worrying about my stutter and decided instead to embrace it. Sometimes the things you struggle with the most, I've realized, end up making you who you are. Now that I know that, I am ready for whatever is next in my career, because I am finally free.

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