Working Life

For the love of ferns

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Science  19 Dec 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6216, pp. 1586
DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6216.1586

I attended Hampshire College to major in music. While watering plants in the greenhouse to fulfill my community service requirement, I fell in love with a fern. ¶ Intending to make thousands of them, I discovered the college laboratory, where I tweezed the furry rhizomes of Davallia fejeensis into agar-filled test tubes, careful to keep my sleeve out of the Bunsen burner flame used to keep things sterile. Between frat parties and piano practice, I made a discovery: Agar prepared for growing bacteria caused the rhizomes to reprogram and become reproductive-like structures. My discovery set me on a path to research. I would stay on that path for about a dozen years.

No one in my family had ever studied science. I was already midway through college, with just a high school biology class behind me. I struggled through remedial math, then chemistry and physics. One graduate school accepted me. For the next 2 years, I taught and worked in a research lab, studying membranes. I aced my graduate courses. Membranes didn't seem to play a role in reprogramming development, so I transferred to Albert Einstein College of Medicine, to a laboratory that studied enzymes involved in transcription and DNA replication.

“I still love ferns, but I'll let someone else figure out their genetic switches.”


“Be here as often as possible,” my new graduate adviser said. I went to dinner at 5 p.m. and returned at 7 p.m. “Where were you?” he demanded. From then on, I humbly apprenticed myself. I brought dinner in, studied while my gels ran, and slept on the orange vinyl couch in the women's lounge.

“You've studied enough. Let's go to a movie,” one boyfriend said. I shooed him away. Another offered marriage and travel if I would quit my Ph.D. program. Ha! My experiments were my life. Finally, I married a cute medical student I met at a mixer in the research center lobby. He followed me to my postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation Fellow. While my husband was on call, and even when he wasn't, I buried myself in transcription factors that control developmental genes.

I applied for tenure-track positions and was offered several: Duke. Johns Hopkins. Brandeis. My husband said he would go anywhere. I committed to Hopkins and wrote my first big National Institutes of Health grant. My husband served me with divorce papers. I fell into a state of shock. Twelve years had passed since I'd fallen in love with my fern.

At Hopkins, I was unable to lift a pipette, let alone concentrate on building a lab. I had written for scientific journals, but now I wrote madly in my own journal, using words as therapy to figure out what had gone wrong.

An old boyfriend invited me to sunny Los Angeles. Skeptically, I boarded a plane to a world of palm trees, movies, restaurants, and—surprisingly—laughter and love. These were tastes of a life I had missed. For months, I assumed my attraction to this “real” world was a transient response to the trauma of divorce. I expected my love for the lab to return. My grant was rejected by a couple of points. I moved to LA with no job prospects. I became a live-in girlfriend.

I remarried, re-divorced, practiced piano again, and raised two children. I bought a house near mountains and hiking trails. I read. I briefly accepted a tenure-track assistant professorship at a liberal arts college, assuming I was ready for the lab again.

I wasn't. It was as a teacher that I made sense of myself. Teaching gave me a life of work but also a life of people and play. Colleges, though, want research. I resigned.

Today I teach 11th and 12th grade physiology. I have been a school board chair and a high school principal. I often work with special education and at-risk students. Many of them have trouble focusing because of traumatic life events. I can relate. I still love ferns, but I'll let someone else figure out their genetic switches. I'm okay with watering the ferns in my backyard.

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