Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

Coffee Stains

By Sarah Albritton

I hate smelling like coffee.

You probably do too if you think about it. Maybe you’ve spent a lazy summer morning lingering far too long at the cute little corner café, sipping iced coffee and trading stories with an old friend. Inarguably time well wasted. You walk away feeling serenely caffeinated. The joy of your morning rendezvous follows you for the rest of the day.

Unfortunately, so does the smell of coffee. It coats every fiber of your white cotton t-shirt. Every strand of hair stinks of an odd mixture of shampoo and espresso. The oil from the coffee beans continues to clog your pores hours after you’ve hugged goodbye. I hate that.

Granted, I’ve likely spent a lot more time cultivating this coffee-smelling hatred than your average Joe (pun intended). It all began the summer after I graduated from college.

It was 2006. After four years of grueling coursework at the University of California, Davis (go Ags!), I walked away with a bachelor’s in Cell Biology, a minor in Math,and a slightly irrational fear of bicycles. Did you know that in the city of Davis, bikes outnumber people twenty to one? This is, admittedly, a gross overestimate. But there are a lot of bikes. And I did witness far more bicycle accidents than I care to remember.

Beyond bike-o-phobia, I accumulated an array of remarkably useless talents while in school. I could cram for a test mere hours before the exam, nap in the back of a classroom without being caught, and survive on a less-than-diverse diet of dining hall grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries.

Amazing skill set aside, I lacked direction. I was 21. Up until this point, my biggest life decisions had been made for me — mostly by my mother. Suddenly the zero-consequences period of my life was over. My newly acquired diploma served two purposes: it was the promise of a future and an unrelenting reminder that I had not a single idea of what to do with it.

So I did the logical thing. I got a job at Starbucks.

And I loved it.

Most of my college friends I’d met in class. We’d bonded over organic chemistry and DNA replication. Every social event invariably included a discussion of amino acids or hydrogen bonds. I hated it.

My coffee co-workers were fun. They didn’t know science and, even better, they didn’t know I did. We bonded over cute clothes and cuter boys. We talked music and celebrity gossip. It was light. It was easy.

And, after a few months, it was so boring. I was making coffee for a living. Steam a little milk. Grind a few coffee beans. Hand off the triple decaf, non-fat, no-whip, two-pump white chocolate mocha to the umpteenth ungrateful customer of the day.

Worst of all, I would come home reeking of coffee. The smell embedded itself in my skin. I had to do laundry every day lest the odor emanating from my hamper infect the entire house. I washed my hair two or three times before the caffeine buzz wore off.

And I began to miss science. I missed lab coats and latex gloves. I missed spin columns and culture hoods. I missed reading scientific journals. I missed working in the laboratory. I missed studying. I missed learning.

I quit my job at Starbucks and got a job at a biotech company. I enrolled in several postbac classes – microbiology, anatomy, and physiology. A few years later I applied to graduate school. That’s how I ended up at New York University, getting a PhD in genomics.

I’ve always been envious of those people who knew what they wanted to do in elementary school. I didn’t know at age 10 that I wanted to be a scientist. There were signs, of course. In 9th grade, for example, I read James Watson’s The Double Helix cover to cover in a single night. And I always secretly thought I would look phenomenal in a lab coat.

But first I had to don that green Starbucks apron. I had to step away from science to know that I wanted to come back to it. Were it not for coffee I may never have returned.

I suppose I’m grateful. Every time I enter a coffee shop I take a long, deep breath. But I try not to linger. I really hate smelling like coffee.


Sarah Albritton was awarded her Ph.D. with distinction from the Department of Biology at New York University in 2017. She now works as a scientist at the New York Genome Center.