I took a pretty circuitous path to becoming a biochemist.
When I was six, I wanted to be a paleontologist, influenced by the “dinosaurs are cool” factor and my older (much older) sister’s college textbooks which I attempted to read, trying to get a grasp of evolution. Then, I wanted to be a zoologist, specializing in mammology. Next, I imagined that I would be an astrophysicist (my brother’s a physicist…not an astro- kind but a solid state physicist), and by the time I was in high school, I thought I’d be a good psychiatrist what with all my angst-ridden teenaged friends coming to me for counsel with their problematic lives (jeez, now that’s just scary) and the fact that I thought drugs’ effects on the brain were fascinating. Don’t ask.
I enrolled in pre-med as an undergrad and hated it. I mean, hated it, although I loved the labs in chemistry and biology. Now I happen to be able to draw and paint reasonably well, and as a seventh grader, I was considered to be a veritable pre-adolescent van Gogh, no, Monet, strike that…maybe more of a mediocre illustrator of cut-rate children’s books. I mean, Mrs. H., my jurnio high art instructor, thought I had talent! The high school art teacher desperately tried to recruit me into his classes, but the schedule conflicted with band, and the alluring promise of an associated trip to Washington DC during my senior year was just too much to pass up. So I told Mr. S. that I couldn’t enroll in his art classes, and thus I became the worst flautist ever, and even went so far as to torture others by my attempts at the piccolo and (shudder) the oboe. The stupid high school canceled the trip when I reached my senior year.
With this modicum of artistic talent, I decided to change majors from pre-med bio to architecture, a field of study to which I was exposed by some boyfriend or other during my freshman year. I fared well in the design studios and art classes (A’s and B’s), but truly rogered the Rottweiler when it came to statics and dynamics and CALCOMP, a primeval drafting program that used punch cards, yes, punch cards, which, when fed into a card reader, sent data to a Bronze Age plotter located about 103 miles away from the architecture studios.
With only twelve credits left to get to my bachelors in architecture, I bolted back to liberal arts and sciences. I knew I wanted to be some sort of biology major, but for whatever reason, I found myself with a binary choice between zoology and botany. As I sat on the ratty sofa, covered with a faded Indian bedspread pitted with roach burns, I tried to decide: “Plants or animals? Animals or plants?” My roommate’s cute as the dickens, but spoiled rotten, slate-grey kitty cat then hopped up onto the table by the window which held a collection of coleus plants. A cherished ex-swain had given the coleus to me, and I was moodily keeping them alive as some sort of weird memento. The cat gnawed on them. I shooed the cat away, and checked off “Botany” as my major.
One of my favorite classes as a botany major was phycology, the study of algae. I loved that green slime. Our classes and lab were in a nineteenth centry era natural history museum with old oak floors and the distinctive odor of old preserved things, including some of the greying tattered professors. I imagined myself as a phycologist on the faculty of a small liberal arts college, gallivanting about collecting Volvox, Spyrogyra and other such green lovelies which are actually quite attractive under the microscope.
That wasn’t how things turned out. My keen interest in small molecules that have big effects on receptors and enzymes eventually won out. A few advanced organic and physical chem. classes later, and I was in grad school focusing on pharmaceutical biochemistry.
I still fantasize about the naturalist’s life, and likely have romanticized it to something resembling unicorns in hip waders with magnifying glasses, and grant money pouring effortlessly into shiny pots at the end of the academic rainbow. I expect my salary, garnered by separating little old blue-haired ladies from their Medicare Rx drug bucks, is better able to pay the bills in the precious little ‘burg where I live currently.. But still…
I kept my phycology notebook, and dragged it out recently. I was still making the transition from architect back to biologist, and it shows. I used a Rapidograph pen to take notes and draw, and I affected an artsy block print. They’re not remotely of the quality of the bioartiste, zeladoniac, whose blog, Drawing the Motmot, is linked in Pharyngula (see Science illustrators have so much fun). Still, I had fun drawing the specimens. Here are a few that I scanned. There are a few marine algal specimens, a dilettantish interest which eventually took me to the Marine Biology Labs in Woods Hole, MA, but that’s another story on my broken arrow path to biochemistry.