My Life in STEM

Once again I’m writing a blog post when I should be sleeping… but here I am.  I wanted to get this out of my head before it disappears.

The robotics organization that my entire life was devoted to in high school posted something on Facebook recently about the rates at which kids drop out of STEM, and it brought up a lot of emotions for me.

Until 6 months ago I was a student in a very prestigious and competitive PhD program in Bio Engineering.  I was doing everything I had been told I should do since I was, oh, about six years old?  And I was miserable.

So I left STEM.

I never thought that would happen.  Never, ever.  I grew up in Silicon Valley with an engineer dad and showed aptitude at a young age for science and math.  That was pushed and praised– I went to a middle school with required computer science classes, the high school where Stanford professors send their kids, and my main extra-curricular activity was FIRST robotics.  I attended Carnegie Mellon University and majored in polymer chemistry and started on that path towards a PhD and probably a career as a scientist in biotech start-ups.

I was good at chemistry, something that even other scientists and engineers think is some kind of god-given miracle that must be encouraged.

The thing is, though, that I had always done textiles.  I knit sweaters during orgo recitations in undergrad and crocheted models of the hyperbolic plane.  I started knitting at age four and spinning at age ten, and my parents got me a floor loom as a middle-school graduation present.

When the opportunity presented me to leave school and work at Lacis instead of a biotech company or another tutoring job… that sounded like heaven.  It also sounded like something I had never thought would be possible– textiles.  As a career.

I am so much happier now but I still feel guilty sometimes.  I still feel ashamed.  What I’m doing now has a tiny fraction of the prestige of what I did before, particularly in the culture I was raised in.  I am now a woman who left STEM, a woman who didn’t make it, who couldn’t take the pressure.  I will never make as much money as I would have had I stayed.  I will probably never make my father proud of my accomplishments.  I will never hold a patent.  I will never cure a disease.

And I am ok with that 99.99% of the time.  When I talk about 16th century Spanish embroidery with SCA members at work.  When I can identify down to a year or two the date of a dress in a photo.  When I can try new things– hat making!  bobbin lace!  Irish crochet!– that I would never have had the time and resources for otherwise.

But it is hard to forget the biases of the system I lived in for so long.

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